When you’re at a disadvantage in the workforce, it can be easy to give up hope for anything better.

At the start of the most recent cycle of the “ESL for Customer Service” training program at Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, two participants flatly told their teacher they did not think they could get a better job. The gulf between their language skills and the demands of the mainstream American workforce just seemed too great.

But as of their December 19th graduation, one of those two participants had completed a food handling certification and scored a second interview with Bon Me. The other had already acquired two new jobs.

woman at podium
Lorena Luna speaks at the “ESL for Customer Service” graduation ceremony.

“This has been the best decision I have took to come to this program,” said Lorena Luna, an El Salvadorian immigrant whose two new jobs help her support her two children.

The “ESL for Customer Service” program is just one of many job training programs funded by the Neighborhood Jobs Trust (NJT). A public charitable trust stewarded by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, NJT is fed by linkage fees from large-scale commercial developments being built in the city. Essentially, NJT helps translates commercial development into workforce gains for the community.

Over the course of 10 weeks, the “ESL for Customer Service” program prepares English language learners to succeed in a workplace steeped in rapid English and uniquely American norms of customer service. The program, which is run by the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and the Chinese Progressive Association, also helps participants navigate the job application and interview process.

These were precisely the skills that Shangkun (Calvin) Li, who immigrated to the U.S. four months ago, had needed during his frustrating job search prior to the program.

“Because my English was not good enough, and the culture is so different, it was hard to find a good job,” he said. “I did not understand the American interview culture, so I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong.”

There was so much he didn’t know: the importance of smiling and eye contact, common interview questions to prepare for, the follow-up etiquette of a thank-you note. But the “ESL for Customer Service” program addressed these conventions as well as resume-writing, labor laws, customer service-specific vocabulary, and employment paperwork.

As of graduation, a majority of the graduates had already been placed, due in part to the program’s strong partnerships with employers like Roche Bros., Bon Me, and Uniqlo. During the course of the program, representatives from these companies shared their policies and job descriptions with participants, took them on site visits to their stores, and helped them navigate their application processes.

Bon Me co-founder and owner Ali Fong, who attended Monday’s ceremony, said the experience taught her how challenging the application process could be for candidates from other countries. A playful interview question like “What kind of dressing are you?” could be bewildering for someone who doesn’t understand the question’s abstract purpose, or the premium Americans place on personality and creativity.

Bon Me, which pays permanent workers $13 per hour and plans to raise that threshold to $15 by the end of 2018, has hired six “ESL for Customer Service” graduates so far.

Graduates of the most recent cycle of “ESL for Customer Service” at their Dec, 19th graduation.

Ben Ray, a talent acquisition consultant for Japanese clothing store Uniqlo, which has hired two graduates, said that given its international scope, his company is used to working with non-native English speakers. The company, which starts part-time associates at above minimum wage ($12 per hour), gives employees opportunities to build and demonstrate their English and customer service skills in the classroom, on the job, and through testing – and to earn raises accordingly.

“There’s an extensive talent pool out there that we don’t tap into if we don’t get tapped into the community,” he said.

Indeed, this most recent cycle of graduates demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness. They all had taken the difficult step of immigrating to the United States. One man spoke four languages. In their native China, one graduate had been an IT supervisor while another had owned and operated her own clothing store.

As their language barriers have broken down, they have found something even better than hope – jobs that can make their lives better.

“When I came here, I could just speak a little English….I felt very helpless at that time,” said Fen Rong Huang. “This class helped give me confidence to speak English and find a job.”

She started her new job at Uniqlo last week.

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