New Roots to Employment: Hybrid Career Readiness Program for English Language Learners with College Degrees

Program Context

The Asian American Civic Association (AACA) is a community-based multi-service center in Boston whose mission is to enable immigrants and economically disadvantaged people to realize lasting economic self-sufficiency. Established in 1967, they provide ten levels of ESOL classes, workplace preparation, job training, and social services. AACA’s 10-level ESOL continuum of classes serves 350 adults annually. AACA was funded by a grant from English for New Bostonians to provide the New Roots to Employment classes in July 2014.

Rationale and Background of the Practice

AACA staff had noted a growing number of ESOL advanced degree holders applying to their Next Step Transitional English Program (Next STEP). The goal of this intermediate level bridge program is to prepare students for college or job training. Because these highly educated applicants had already completed a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, they were ineligible for Federal Financial Aid, and therefore, weren’t good candidates for the program. These prospective students were referred to private ESOL providers or job training programs, when appropriate.

Many of the individuals who couldn’t be served by AACA’s Next STEP program had professional backgrounds in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) but, due to their limited English proficiency, were unemployed or underemployed, working in fast food, restaurants, retail, and other low-skilled, low-wage jobs. A 2013 report by the Brookings Institution, “The Hidden STEM Economy,” showed that the metropolitan Boston area ranked 7th out of 100 metropolitan areas nationwide in STEM employment. Health diagnosing and treating practitioners, computer engineers, health technologists and technicians, drafters, engineering technicians, mapping technicians, and life scientists were among the top 10 STEM occupations in the greater Boston area. Underemployment of high-skilled immigrants clearly represented a considerable loss of potential not only for the individuals but also for local employers and the local economy. Getting these already-trained adults with college degrees back into their professions simply made sense.

Although some of high-skilled immigrants had the know-how and resources to navigate the system in the U.S. to find education, training, and employment on their own, many did not possess the necessary knowledge to re-enter their fields or a related field. The New Roots to Employment program was designed to meet these immigrants’ educational and employment needs and help them reclaim their careers.

Description of the Practice

Program Model
New Roots is a combination of distance learning, classroom work, and job search activities. This eight-month program blends three-hour classroom ESOL sessions every other week with weekly Skype sessions and 4-6 hours of English practice using online Burlington English career modules specific to each student’s area of training.

Schoology, a free Learning Management System, provides a platform for online communication between teacher and students and among students. It is where homework assignments and additional resources are posted. Burlington English is its own program with its own login, as is Skype, and instructions for both are put on Schoology for reference. Twice-weekly assignments, related links, and handouts are posted on Schoology, as are materials from classroom sessions.

Following four months of participation in instruction, during which students also work with an Employment Services Coordinator, participants have four additional months of case management to continue working on skills, such as crafting and fine-tuning resumes, cover letters, and reference lists, searching for jobs, applying to and interviewing for jobs, and developing professional networks.

A mentoring component has been added through collaboration between AACA and the National Association of Asian American Professionals in which each student is connected with a working professional with roughly the same professional background and skill set. The Employment Services Coordinator then creates individualized education and service plans with students and works with both students and employer partners to ensure that students are ready for employment.

Eligible students must meet the following criteria: demonstrate a high intermediate level of English (SPL 5-6); have a college degree from another country in a STEM field; be interested in returning to work in their profession; be motivated and self-disciplined about learning; be comfortable using a computer (specifically, a PC – no Macs or mobile devices due to the constraints of the online portion). Students must pay a $50 deposit for the Burlington English headphones that they get back when they return the headphones.

Intake and Assessment
After an initial eligibility screening, potential students are invited to an information session where the staff outlines the program model and its expectations. Students are asked to sign a written commitment agreeing to participate in all aspects of the course, seek full-time employment at the end of the program, and disclose any employment changes to the Employment Service Coordinator. Academic skills assessment consists of TABE form 9/10 level D (reading and writing) as well as a writing assignment in which the student writes about a typical day on the job in their profession in their home country.

The intake and assessment process concludes with an interview with the ESOL teacher who asks questions about the student’s work history, current job, understanding of entry level positions that exist in their particular field in the U.S., and any knowledge of specific steps necessary for licensure. Students are also asked about their financial stability for the duration of the course, transportation, daycare arrangements, and family support as these are factors that can be barriers to employment. Any issues with these must be addressed by the Employment Services Coordinator and/or a Case Manager.

Sample Schedule

November 4 – March 3

  • Online Class: You will study from home on your computer. There will be course lessons on a computer, plus weekly web meetings to practice using skills from the lessons, and to improve conversation and pronunciation skills.
  • Class Meetings at AACA: You will meet about every other Tuesday. Work skills include applying for jobs; the US workplace culture; polite and professional communication, and interview preparation. ESOL skills include pronunciation, conversation, vocabulary, and writing.

March 4 – June 30

  • Job Search: You will have meetings with the job developer to search, apply, and interview for jobs in your field.

Instruction and Job Readiness
In addition to practicing the relevant English necessary to re-enter their field using Burlington English, the blended classroom and online instruction model includes resume preparation, interviewing skills, advising assistance to form social networks, access to mentors, and job shadowing opportunities to help students become more job-ready. A typical Skype session covers follow-up to class assignments, job interview practice, and speaking and listening exercises. The in-class sessions focus on developing skills that lend themselves to a face-to-face format, such as pair and group work and workshops by the Employment Services Coordinator.

Sample topics include listening in the real world, interacting with co-workers, and working on a team. For example, one lesson involves role playing coworkers negotiating job tasks by using typical phrases to ask for and offer help, such as, ‘Excuse me, do you have a minute?’ and ‘You may be right, but I think it’s better to do it this way.’ Another lesson digs into the cultural values behind specific behaviors by having students read an article and engage in an online discussion about their personal experiences. Please see the separate course syllabus document [PDF].

The New Roots program employs several part-time positions: Program Manager; ESOL Teacher experienced in using online resources and Skype for instruction; and Employment Specialist/Job Developer who follows up on all job placements every three, six, and nine months for two years. This staff team meets every other week to discuss individual students’ progress, readiness for internship or job placement, and how to help them overcome any challenges.

Student Testimonials
“I found the Skype meetings particularly useful for reviewing my understanding of topics and assignments. It also helped me to learn from other colleagues in my group. The web resources were well researched and helpful for understanding of the topics taught.”

“This program helps to get me prepared for a job. I am able to write proper emails and know how to communicate with coworkers efficiently.”

“I am very satisfied because I feel more confident to relate with people now. I now have a better understanding of what they say, their expectations, and how to reply to them.”


In replicating this program, the considerations include the following:

  • Having a Case Manager, a Employment Specialist/Job Developer, and ESOL Teacher with experience in distance teaching is ideal for this program design.
  • Careful screening and assessment of English proficiency is important so that students are not set up for failure.
  • AACA is looking to increase the number of hours of classroom-based English instruction to six hours a week for 20 weeks. They found that the existing intensity of service was not enough English practice for many students to be successful in securing professional jobs even thought their TABE closes improved. Students needed even more practice crafting error-free emails and business communications and handling job interviews fluidly.
  • Highly educated immigrant learners often have unrealistic expectations regarding their employment qualifications and salaries they can earn in the U.S. Probing candidates’ inclination about taking an entry-level position is advised at intake. Methods could include creating and asking applicants about various scenarios of educated immigrants taking entry-level jobs as well as providing a list of entry-level positions for various fields alongside a salary range.
  • Students need to have access to computers and high-speed internet and possess basic digital literacy skills.
  • Burlington English charges $100/slot.
  • Extensive student recruitment through multiple channels is necessary to recruit high-skilled immigrants who meet the eligibility criteria.

Advantages and Outcomes

The New Roots program is making progress toward its goal to enable immigrants with professional backgrounds to reclaim their careers in the United States. The pilot course ended in May 2015. All 15 participants completed the initial four-month course and the four-month job search phase. Nine students have been placed in entry and mid-level STEM-related jobs or entered career training, and 13 out of 15 demonstrated significant learning gains on the TABE assessment. The remainder continue meeting with their professional mentors and actively job searching.

New Roots is an innovative program that takes full advantage of currently available free or low-cost technology tools to supplement in-class instruction. As such, it enables high-skilled immigrants to participate in an educational program and still work and attend to other responsibilities. The job search and placement phase ensures the English skills and U.S. job readiness lead to actual jobs. As the program becomes established, it is helping to boost the incomes and economic security of the immigrants and their families. Conversely, the program is helping employers to find skilled workers thereby contributing to the vibrancy of the local economy.

Additional Resources Related to High-Skilled Immigrants

IMPRINT is a consortium of national organizations advancing workforce integration of high skilled immigrants. Its members are:

  • Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education
  • Upwardly Global
  • Welcome Back Initiative
  • Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians
  • World Education Services and Global Talent Bridge

Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development, and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national, and international levels. One focus of their research is topics related to high-skilled immigrants, such as credential recognition. This site includes, for example, fact sheets for the 12 states with the largest college-educated immigrant populations in the U.S. civilian workforce and a recording of a webinar on State-Level Initiatives to Address Brain Waste among Highly Educated Immigrants and Refugees.

Kristan Fitah, Program Manager
New Roots to Employment Program, Asian-American Civic Association
Boston, MA

Diana Satin