Hospitality industry, nonprofit give refugees a fresh START

The unlikely alignment of a Manchester nonprofit agency still in its infancy and a segment of the state’s tourist industry has resulted in a program that gives refugees and immigrants a chance at a fresh start – literally.

Working together, the New Hampshire African Community Center and the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association have adapted the two-year-old national Skills, Tasks and Results Training Program (START) to fit the occupational training needs and abilities of some of the Granite State’s newest residents.

“Retaining a job is very important to the immigrants coming here,” said Mariatou Scott, founder and executive director of the NHACC. “They like to work and want to be able to support themselves and their families.”

“We were thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Mariatou,” said Janet Casey, educational manager for the NHLRA. “The work ethic of these students is incredible and we are very pleased at being able to partner with them.”

Traditionally consisting of 180 hours of classroom instruction, the START Program focuses on housekeeping, bell, restaurant and banquet services, and reservations and front-desk duties.

Developed by the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute for Workforce Development, the program typically targets at-risk youth, welfare-to-work and dislocated workers.

Scott, 47, adapted the program to fit the needs of area immigrants by cutting the initial instruction period in half and focusing on “back-of-the-house” duties like housekeeping and laundry – at least to start with.

“This is a good match because the students are able to do something within their abilities despite their personal skills or their emotional skills,” said Scott, who moved to the United States from Mali in west Africa in 1986. “Many of them are still trying to understand what has happened to them, and it can be very hard emotionally.”

The training provided through the abbreviated START program allows students’ employment to be expedited. Employers who have had difficulty in maintaining a workforce also are benefiting, gaining capable, willing and dependable employees, Scott said.

Transportation, language hurdles

Scott’s first two groups of START students – 17 in all – graduated in July. All but two found jobs quickly, contributing to the sense of optimism surrounding the program’s future. The two waiting to secure jobs did so because of family demands, Scott said. So far, the remaining 15 have performed well in their new positions.

“This is working out very well for us,” said Ray Bewsher, human resources director for the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center on Elm Street in Manchester and one of the first START program employers. “These students have turned out to be good, dedicated employees and have helped us fill a need in housekeeping, a division where we sometime have a difficult time keeping good people.”

Scott attributes part of the success of the collaborative effort to NHACC’s desire to stay in close contact with the new employers, ready and willing to assist with any questions or concerns that might arise.

Despite the apparent success of the program, Scott is quick to add that there are challenges facing the students.

In addition to the emotional turmoil associated with experiencing the atrocities that plague the homelands of so many of the immigrants, most of the NHACC students do not speak or read English, are unable to drive and face day-care issues.

Some difficulties, like transportation, are addressed through the program. Students take “field trips,” for example, learning the lay of the Queen City and the public transportation system, making traveling to and from their new jobs manageable.

Scott hopes future grants will help the NHACC address the greatest barrier – communication. If all goes well, Scott hopes to receive a $167,000 grant from the Workforce Opportunity Council that will be used to develop an English proficiency program.

Eventually, Scott envisions her students moving up the hospitality ladder into desk jobs and management positions.

Bewsher shares Scott’s hopes and plans for breaking down this barrier by allowing both START and other Radisson employees to use the company’s education reimbursement policy to continue with English as a Second Language classes.

“We recognize the fact that these employees are extremely intelligent and have held amazing positions in their home countries,” Bewsher said. “We know that by helping them to attend ESL classes they will be able to advance.”

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