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Technical School in Chicago Helps Immigrants Learn English and Get Jobs


Founded in 1991, the Zarem-Golde Technical Institute in suburban Chicago is a relatively new institution with quite a pedigree. It is part of the global Organization for Educational Resources and Technology Training (ORT), founded in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1880 to help impoverished Jews learn trade skills. Since then, ORT has been helping the disadvantaged improve their lives through vocational training around the world. Chicago, with its diverse immigrant population, was a logical choice for a new training facility. The Institute was founded in 1991 on the North side of Chicago, a very diverse immigrant neighborhood. After nearly 15 years, the Institute relocated to Skokie, Illinois, just a few miles from its previous location, to a larger facility in an industrial/manufacturing area that could better accommodate its growing programs and need for quality training facilities. The Institute is a non-profit organization that is accredited by the Illinois State Board of Education. All its ESL instructors must have a bachelor's or master's degree with specialization in TOEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) or from two to five years of teaching experience, and be certified by the Board of Education.

Today, the Institute employs 12 full time and 42 part time workers on a budget of $ 2.5 million. It attracts international students, immigrants and some displaced American workers. Thirty percent of its 450 students are immigrants or refugees, hailing mostly from the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Korea and Iraq.

The Institute's primary mission is to educate and find employment for its graduates. It works closely with local employers to assess their workforce needs, redesigns its curricula and course offerings to match those needs and industry trends, and appeals to employers to hire its graduates. To succeed, the Institute must master both sides of the labor equation-stimulate demand for its graduates and supply the desired workers to local employers. But the Institute is more than just a vocational school. It is also an integral part of the local community. It tries to be a good neighbor and partner by addressing some of the employment needs in the community at large. For example, it is looking at ways to tackle the particular issues facing disabled workers, immigrant high school dropouts, and immigrants with a weak command of English.

Landing jobs for its students is the Institute's top priority. Accordingly, the Institute focuses on ascertaining job market needs and teaches classes to match its students' skills with identified market opportunities. The Institute gauges market needs by relying on a very active advisory board comprised of area business leaders. The Institute offers eight technical programs. The most popular, in order, are computerized accounting, medical billing and medical assistant training, Other programs include computer-aided design, microcomputer network technology, home technology integration, and executive assistant training. The Institute works intensively with its students to place them in good jobs with community businesses. There are numerous job postings, and students are coached on how to write resumes and cover letters, and how to assess potential employers to ensure the best fit. The Institute also focuses on teaching students about American "job culture." Advisors explain how to keep a job and how to recognize exploitation or unfair practices in the workplace. This can be very enlightening for foreigners, especially for those who have been raised in a culture of entitlement or outside a rights-based culture. The Institute's efforts have been very successful, boasting a 90 percent placement rate for its graduates seeking employment upon graduation. The average drop out rate over the last five years has been 15 percent.

The Institute believes that its students must be proficient English speakers in order to profit from their vocational classes and locate jobs upon graduation. The typical course of study at the Institute lasts up to 18 months for non-native speakers, with approximately eight months of intensive ESL and six to nine months of technical-vocational training. The ESL classes are not literacy programs, but English-only immersion classes. The classes typically have from 12 to 20 students and meet for 25 hours each week. Conversation classes and volunteering activities to help students learn more about American culture and civic participation supplement classroom work. The Institute requires a high school equivalency degree and administers entrance exams for its technical programs.

The ESL and technical programs are not inexpensive, totaling several thousand dollars. International students (comprising 70 percent of enrollees) pay full fare. Displaced workers tend to be partially subsidized and only enter the technical programs. Immigrant students, who generally live within two miles of the Institute, often need substantial financial assistance. This is done through no-interest loans that allow students to pay over time. No payments are required until the students graduate from the program and secure employment, as stipulated in an enrollment agreement with the school that students must sign. Over the last ten years, the Institute has collected 80 percent of the loans it extends to students.

In addition to forging business links with the community, the Institute "gives back" to the community more broadly by developing a strong referral network of other social service agencies in Chicago, and sponsoring monthly meetings with local elected officials to help students and members of the community resolve problems. In addition, the Institute's placement office serves former students and community members as well. It has an open door policy, offering its resource center, resume writing seminars, and employment advice free of charge.

Lessons Learned

Maintain Excellence. To maintain its exceptionally high placement rates, the Institute knows that it must correctly assess local market needs and prepare its students rigorously to meet those needs. In the process, the Institute has had to make hard choices about admissions standards for its programs and the level of commitment it requires of its students.

Understand Your Students. The Institute knows that its students need assistance integrating into American culture. It supplements its vocational training by advising its students on how to look for a job and behave in the workplace. It also refers its students to other social service agencies and elected officials for assistance.

Good Neighbors Make Good Partners. The Institute serves the broader community through its free placement services. It is also looking for new ways to help vulnerable members of the community find their footing. Over time, this cooperative relationship between the Institute, local employers and local residents inures to everyone's benefit.

For More Information

·         Website:

·         Contact: Arthur Eldar at aeldar"at"


Microenterprise Program Helps Immigrant Women in Atlanta Start and Expand Small Businesses


Many refugee and immigrant women arrive in the United States with experiences running small businesses in their home countries or with professional degrees. However, they find it difficult to take advantage of those prior experiences and degrees in the United States, and are often trapped in low paying jobs with little opportunity for advancement. The Refugee Women's Network (RWN) in Atlanta, like other microenterprise programs around the country, is seeking to empower immigrant and refugee women with the skills necessary to start or expand small businesses. The goal of programs like these is to help these women gain confidence and become economically self-sufficient. The entry point into RWN's microenterprise program is a six week course on how to write a business plan. RWN supplements the class with post-training follow-up to provide encouragement and technical assistance. It also facilitates the formation of support networks comprised of program graduates and provides microloans.

Refugee Women's Network faced a number of challenges in determining how best to capitalize on the skills and experiences their immigrant and refugee clients had brought with them to America. Was there a way to design a program that would channel these women's entrepreneurial drive and life skills into something tangible while accommodating the many constraints they faced as newcomers, such as adapting to a new culture, learning English, finding a place to live and making ends meet?

Although RWN had been involved in leadership training for immigrant and refugee women for a number of years, it had not previously focused on vocational or business training. This all changed in 2001 when RWN launched its microenterprise program. The program grew out of the requests from refugee and immigrant women, participants of RWN's Leadership Training, who wanted help in starting their own businesses. RWN began offering a business training course on "How to start your own business" using a manual it developed itself. In 2003, it started using the First Step FastTrac business plan teaching materials developed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Initially, the business training lasted 12 weeks and was offered to pre-screened immigrant and refugee women. The class was completely free of charge until 2003 when RWN started charging a nominal fee based on income. The fees are highly subsidized and cost participants less than $100. Currently, 6-week fall and spring trainings are offered, each accommodating up to 20 students. Approximately 200 women have participated in the business plan training class since inception and, according to RWN, about a third of the women have started, expanded or strengthened a business. In order to attract participants, RWN conducts outreach in the community. It relies on contacts with employment programs at other agencies, advertisements in ethnic newspapers and radio, flyers and, most importantly, word of mouth.

RWN knew that the women who took their classes would be embarking on a long and sometimes lonely journey as entrepreneurs. They would need assistance, financial and technical, along the way. They would also need moral support. In response, RWN hired a business counselor in 2005 to provide follow-up services and bring the program graduates together as a support network. The business counselor provides one-on-one business technical assistance, helps partner people who are looking for business associates, and advises women who seek to pursue additional schooling, training or certification. In 2005, RWN also launched a microloan program geared primarily to program graduates. RWN makes small loans ranging from $250 to $5,000 to help the entrepreneurs build their businesses.

In conducting its screening for training participants, RWN assesses prospective students' ability to profit from the program. RWN understood early on that its clients would have a host of needs, only some of which were related to starting a business. In order to conserve resources and stay on mission, RWN developed an extensive list of partner agencies in the metropolitan Atlanta area to which they could refer clients. This enabled RWN to teach students most able to take advantage of the class and ensure that their clients' vital needs could be met. In the past, RWN had taught the business plan class with interpreters, trying to accommodate the language limitations of its clients. It soon realized that English was an essential skill in starting a business and that these women could not write a business plan in English. As a result, RWN decided that English proficiency would be a prerequisite for participants in its microenterprise training classes. They now refer clients with limited English skills to other agencies for intensive English instruction. Similarly, when clients need other forms of assistance, such as locating housing or childcare, RWN makes sure they are referred to the right agency to obtain needed services.

In a related effort to stay on mission and fill a particular niche in the training market, RWN refers clients to more specialized vocational training programs once the women graduate from the business plan class, rather than try to teach specialized classes themselves. For example in 2003-2004, RWN offered Family Child Care business training and 45 women went through this course. While RWN continues to provide follow-up services to these 45 women, RWN decided in 2005 that any new clients that were interested in family child care would be referred to agencies that specialized in offering child care trainings, such as Quality Care for Children. Although a seemingly easy business to launch, it turns out the childcare industry is highly regulated and other area agencies have developed specialized programs for women entering this field.

The issue that RWN will be tackling going forward involves evaluation - figuring out how to measure the effectiveness of its microenterprise training and tweak its program accordingly to maximize its impact in terms of improved life circumstances for program participants.

Lessons Learned
The foundation of the success of the RWN microenterprise program rests on managing three fundamental realities:

·         RWN Needs Enough Resources To Ensure Success: RWN supports this program with funds from the Georgia Department of Human Resources, a microenterprise grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (Department of Health and Human Services), and the Tides Foundation. In order to provide quality services, RWN needed to be able to provide one-on-one technical assistance and follow-up to women who had completed the business plan class. RWN realized it needed to raise enough money to hire a business counselor to provide these supplemental services.

·         A Support Network Is Essential to These Women's Continued Success: RWN also learned that its growing pool of program graduates could play a vital role in helping other women and one another. Accordingly, the program staff have actively tried to build an alumni support network and bring women together as business partners and sources of emotional and professional support.

·         Working with Immigrants and Refugees Poses Specific Challenges: RWN's clients may have very significant problems adapting to life in America. They may lack English skills, housing, or childcare. RWN has invested significant time and resources in developing an extensive referral network of social service agencies to ensure both that their clients get the help they need and RWN stays on mission. This approach increases clients' chances of succeeding in business and keeps RWN's program focused on what it does best.

For more information about the microenterprise program, visit RWN's website at


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