While Boston’s newest skyscraper, the Millennium Tower, rose higher in Downtown Crossing, the fortunes of Jian “Jenny” Zhen Lao in nearby Chinatown fell further.

An immigrant from Guangzhou, China, Lao was laid off in 2015 and spent the better part of a year searching for jobs, while relying on her adult son to pay the bills. Her prospects looked bleak. The only two American jobs she’d ever had she had acquired through Chinese friends. She had no interview experience and little confidence in her English.

“My English is not so real [sic], so I was afraid of American company,” she said.

In compact Boston, economic need and economic growth make intimate neighbors. But like real neighbors, one can aid the other. The Neighborhood Jobs Trust is one mechanism that helps translate the success of developments like the Millennium project into crucial gains for Lao and other Boston residents in need.

Since 1987, the city’s Neighborhood Jobs Trust (NJT) has collected linkage fees, based on square footage, from large-scale commercial developments being built in the city. Stewarded by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, this money is invested annually in jobs and job training programs for lower-income residents who face multiple barriers to employment.

Millennium Tower & Burnham Building
The Millennium Tower and Burnham Building in Downtown Crossing generated nearly $400,000 in jobs training money for the city.

The Millennium project, which includes the 60-story glass tower and renovation of the historic Burnham Building, made a sizable impact on the trust. From 2013 to 2015, Millennium Partners paid nearly $400,000 into the NJT to be dispersed to workforce programs throughout the city. In turn, the NJT awarded over $1 million to 20 job training programs in industries as diverse as hospitality, health care, construction, culinary, early education, and banking & finance in Fiscal Year 2015 (the most recent year for which data is available). Upon job placement, graduates’ incomes more than doubled to an average hourly wage of nearly $15 per hour – above the city’s living wage. Among these newly placed workers, 83 percent also secured access to benefits.

While the NJT emphasizes career pathways, it can also help the city’s neediest residents get a first foot in the door. In Chinatown, this help is sorely needed. Many of the neighborhood’s immigrants have limited familiarity with mainstream American culture, lack English fluency, and are vulnerable to exploitation.

“So many Chinese workers are stuck in restaurant jobs working 60 to 70 hours a week, being paid under the table, not being paid the minimum wage,” said Mark Liu, programs and operations director for the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA).

In 2014, the NJT awarded $50,000 to the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) to start the Occupational Skills Training for Supermarket Employment program in cooperation with the CPA. By training participants for supermarket jobs, the program aimed to introduce participants to mainstream employment and help them develop their resumes and occupational English.

“Working in an English-speaking environment will help their English take off and that will lead to more job opportunities,” said Liu, who co-led the program.

In its first year, the supermarket program trained 15 Chinatown area residents over two 14-week cycles. They learned supermarket-specific vocabulary, U.S. customer service norms, and the hiring expectations of the program’s two employer partners: the new South End Whole Foods and the new Roche Bros., located in none other than the Millennium’s own Burnham Building.

The two stores informed the program of their respective structures and cultures, while program leaders advocated for their clients’ language needs. For example, an oft-overlooked barrier to employment for non-native English speakers is that it can often take more language proficiency to get a job than to do a job. While a resident might possess sufficient English to conduct back-of-store work, he or she may not have the nuanced vocabulary to articulate professional strengths in an interview. The companies responded to these concerns by adapting their interview processes, and Roche Bros. even held an interpreter-assisted job fair specifically for the local community, hiring several residents on the spot.

two graduates holding flowers
Jian “Jenny” Zhen Lao (right) and a fellow graduate celebrate their completion of the Occupational Skills Training for Supermarket Employment in November 2015.

Now in its second year of NJT funding, the training program has expanded to include the retail industry and to train four cycles of residents, including Lao. After graduating in November, Lao successfully interviewed with Roche Bros. and secured a part-time job in the produce department.

Already more confident in her English, she hopes to move up to full-time. She’s in a good place for it.

“We take pride in promoting from within,” said Joe Curtin, Roche Bros. director of recruiting, training, and development. “We’ve already promoted part-time workers who were with us when the store opened to full-time jobs.”

Because she lives just blocks from the Millennium project, Lao can easily walk to the job that has provided her first foothold in the world of English-speaking customer service and her first income in months.

“Now I’m working, I pay the bills,” she said. “I’m so happy. I hear from my son, ‘Thank you, Mom.'”