Emily Griffith program to teach job skills to refugees to graduate 1,000th student today

Five years ago, teachers at the Emily Griffith Technical College Language Learning Center, which offers free English classes to refugees, recognized a problem: Even when refugees landed jobs, they had trouble holding onto them. "We noticed that they were lacking in American workplace skills," says dean of instruction Slavica Park.

So Emily Griffith applied for and won a federally funded grant through the Colorado Department of Education to develop a program to teach the basics, such as the importance of punctuality and precision and how to interact with a supervisor and work with a team of co-workers.

"Some of them have not had any work experience in their countries," Park says. "Or simply, many of them have spent many years in the refugee camps waiting to be resettled. So they haven't had an opportunity to be in a work setting for quite some time."

The program was developed in conjunction with businesses that often hire refugees for entry-level jobs, including the hospitality, retail and construction industries. For six months, Emily Griffith staffer Kate Goodspeed did research on the types of skills refugees were lacking to succeed and then developed a program called the Work Intensive Skills Camp to teach them. At the time, Denver was seeing an influx of Somali Bantu refugees; now, the biggest groups are from Bhutan and Burma. (For more on refugees from Burma, read our cover story, "A World Away.")

"Most (employers) are looking for somebody with a good attitude rather than skills," Park says. "They can train them with industry-specific skills."

The program spans four weeks and resembles a work setting; students must clock in, put on a uniform and are taught certain tasks, such as cashiering, customer service and housekeeping. In the fourth week, the students job shadow, often at a local hotel.

"Quite a few of them have gained employment as a result of the job shadow," Park says.

Today at 11 a.m., the Work Intensive Skills Camp will graduate its 50th class and its 1,000th student. Each student is given a framed photo of their class and a certificate of graduation. "That certificate means so much to them," Park says. "For some of them, it might be the first certificate they ever receive." Park says that when she visits refugees' homes, she often finds the framed certificate hanging proudly in a prominent place.

"My highlight is seeing how much more confidence they've gained throughout those four weeks and those beautiful smiles at the end," she says.

More from our Immigration archive: "Teenage refugees from Burma perform a traditional dance for the New Year."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar