Liziana Borges

Liziana Borges thought she was making a fresh start. Last February, after a layoff from her retail job, she enrolled in a Certified Nursing Assistant course – a decisive step toward her dream of working in healthcare.

But the pandemic dashed those dreams. Her school shuttered abruptly. Jobless, she couldn’t collect unemployment. Borges, 24, lived with her parents in Dorchester, but had a baby to take care of, too: “I was a little bit worried about my daughter. There’s only me to do everything for her.”

Meanwhile, Lori Sylvia, apprenticeship director at BEST Hospitality Training, was working with her colleagues to help hundreds of people as stranded as Borges. For 10 years, Sylvia had been training BEST’s participants for Boston’s booming hotel industry, which now – with a steep decline in travel – had seemingly evaporated overnight.

“We’ve placed hundreds of great people in hotel jobs that have launched their careers, their lives, their families’ lives,” Sylvia said. “Now we were calling all the students we had placed to make sure they could apply for unemployment. It was devastating.”

As a job-seeker and a job-filler, Liziana Borges and Lori Sylvia found themselves on flip sides of the same quandary: What do you do when the career path you count on collapses?

Changing Course

Early in the pandemic, BEST realized that hospitality – literally its middle name – was no longer a viable field for training. So what would the organization do for its next cycle?

As often happens, BEST staff found inspiration in a graduate – a woman who had taken a housekeeping position at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and so impressed her new employer that they asked for more graduates. At the time, BEST could barely keep up with the demand from Boston’s hotel boom. But now? Now, healthcare environmental services seemed like the perfect marriage between BEST, with its state-registered pre-apprenticeship hotel housekeeping program, and an industry with available job openings. Theoretically, at least.

“We still had to develop all new employer relationships,” Sylvia recalls of her time cold-calling hospitals. “We didn’t have any track record with them; we were just another community organization.”

After securing the interest and input of key employers, Sylvia and her colleagues turned to curriculum. They developed components that enabled students to train in health information privacy (HIPAA) and earn an OSHA certification in housekeeping safety. They were also able to re-orient much of BEST’s existing customer service curriculum toward a healthcare setting.

“A hospital operates similarly to a hotel,” Sylvia said. “Patients are the guests, and hospitals seek to provide them with a level of service that they deserve.”

On that premise, and with the support of the Neighborhood Jobs Trust and other funders, BEST launched its new Healthcare Environmental Services Worker Training program in June.

Learning What Works

After months of applying for retail and restaurant jobs and hearing nothing back, Borges learned from a friend about a class that taught people to clean hospitals. It wasn’t a job she’d considered, but she figured it could give her a foothold in healthcare.

A BEST instructor teaches ergonomics remotely in the Healthcare Environmental Services Training program.

By the time Borges joined in September, BEST had modified the program to consist of shorter sessions spread out over more weeks – a lesson learned from the “Zoom fatigue” of its first cycle. For her part, Borges was learning about not just chemical safety and bloodborne pathogens, but also professional skills she wished she’d had all along.

“I had a coach to help me apply for jobs,” she said. “They gave me advice on how to stand in the interview, how to talk right. So I can give a good impression.”   

When she landed an interview at Boston Children’s Hospital – the most progress she’d made all year – Borges was excited, to a point. “They always say that to get a job in a hospital is really difficult,” she said.

But two weeks later, the hospital called to hire her. She wasn’t alone. Seven of Borges’ eight classmates were also placed in jobs – starting at $15/hour or more, often with benefits and higher-paying shift differentials – thanks to the extensive employer network BEST had grown to include health centers and independent and assisted living communities.

Embracing the Future

Having successfully adapted its program for new trainees, BEST is also helping hospitality graduates adapt to their new reality and a better future. In November, BEST, the United Way, and hospitality union UNITE HERE Local 26 launched the Hospitality Workers COVID-19 Emergency Fund, which has raised more than $200,000 for workers in need. In December, BEST and UNITE HERE Local 26 started a re-employment initiative to connect workers with job postings, resources, resume templates, and email capabilities. In the near future, BEST will be providing direct career services to workers, as well.

And when the hotel industry recovers, BEST is ready. “Hotels are focusing on service through safety,” Sylvia said, noting this is just the component BEST is mastering in its healthcare training.  

Borges sees new possibilities for herself, too, drawing inspiration from the medical staff she works alongside.

“I know my job is not like the doctors’ but I think it’s similar,” she said. “The doctors give people medicine and we give them a clean place to stay. We help them to get well.”

She would like to apply that ethic to nursing someday, maybe eventually to pediatrics, given her love of kids. Just recently, she said, cleaning the room of a playful 6-month-old, she could not resist a little peekaboo.

No matter what the future brings, Sylvia is confident that workers like Borges, so adept in people skills, will continue to show their value: “Our graduates have so many transferrable skills. They’re top notch people used to bending over backward to provide exceptional service, going above and beyond to make people happy. I’d think any employer would want that.”

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