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Photo: Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Djennyfer Joseph, who is from Haiti, filled an order at the Shake Shack on Newbury Street.

One of the places I volunteer to help adults learn English is Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in Boston. The students come from all over the world as JVS is a resettlement agency as well as a job-placement agency, but the majority that I have met are either Latino or Haitian.

Although my focus is on helping people learn English, I’ve come to appreciate the way JVS prepares students for the workplace. It actually finds the jobs for them and has many partnerships with companies that need entry-level workers whether or not they speak much English yet. As Boston’s labor market gets tighter, more businesses are seeking out these workers.

Katie Johnston at the Boston Globe provides a window on the phenomenon.

“The lunch rush was just beginning at Shake Shack on Newbury Street and the all-American tasks of grilling burgers and making milkshakes were being handled by a crew made up almost entirely of immigrants — from Haiti, Senegal, Morocco, El Salvador, and Ethiopia.

“But these weren’t just people who happened to apply for a job: All of them were actively recruited by the restaurant chain, including those who spoke little English — a marked difference from years past, when only workers with strong English skills made the cut.

“Like other employers struggling to fill jobs in a tight labor market, Shake Shack has started seeking out candidates it might not have considered before. Spaulding Rehabilitation Network is opening the door to those with criminal backgrounds, in partnership with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. CVS is bumping up its efforts to attract workers with disabilities, while other employers are lowering experience and education requirements. …

“As Northeastern University economist Alicia Sasser Modestino puts it: ‘We have gone through all the easy-to-employ people, and we’re down to the hard-to-employ people.’

“And, as it turns out, some of these ‘hard-to-employ’ people make excellent workers.

“Djennyfer Joseph, 22, was enrolled in an English class for just three weeks at Jewish Vocational Service when her case manager called to tell her she had an interview at Shake Shack. ‘I was like, what, already?’ said Joseph, who came to the United States from Haiti in 2016. ‘It was so fast.’

“Joseph, who studied English in Haiti and also speaks French and Haitian Creole, has been at the Newbury Street restaurant for less than a year and is working toward becoming a cross-trainer, a kind of jack-of-all-trades role that comes with a bump in pay from $12 to $14 an hour. Joseph also recently became a certified nursing assistant, a profession in high demand, but plans to keep working at Shake Shack even after she finds a job in health care.

“Shake Shack managers say [the] roughly two dozen immigrants — many of them refugees — that the restaurant has hired through Jewish Vocational Service over the past year are more than making up for the decrease in the number and quality of college students and American-born adults applying for jobs there. …

“Of course, hiring these nontraditional workers can present challenges for employers, who might have to make adjustments for someone who is blind or has a limited grasp of English.

“At Shake Shack, non-native English speakers are taught specific restaurant phrases, such as ’86’ (get rid of) or ‘drop a wave’ (cook eight burgers at once). Many of them speak French, and translations are posted in the walk-in cooler and kitchen: ‘Changez vos gants means change your gloves’ and ‘Bon travail means good job.’ ”

More at the Boston Globe, here. The article also covers “Triangle in Malden, which trains and supports people with disabilities and [is seeing an uptick in] requests for workers, largely from health care and retail companies.” And you can read about how the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department helps employers place promising ex-offenders.

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Yesterday, as part of my organization’s participation in the United Way Community Care Day, several of us chose to volunteer in the Jewish Vocational Service’s refugee employment program. This service helps refugees learn basic English and works with local employers like Legal Sea Foods and Pret a Manger to find the immigrants jobs in four months. They have 80 percent job-placement success and more than 90 percent job retention after several months.

Each of the volunteers had a reason to be interested in this particular opportunity as opposed to, say, painting a day-care classroom or weeding in a community garden. One guy had lived in Germany for three years and knew what it was like not to understand the local language. Two women had parents who had been immigrants. Two other volunteers were naturalized citizens and had experienced challenges being an immigrant. In my case, I edit articles on low-income immigrant issues as one of the topics we cover where I work, and I am related to immigrants.

We were assigned either to a classroom where people spoke no English (and may not even have learned to read and write in their home country) or to a classroom where people had a little English. I was directed to a table of three adult learners in the latter classroom. The teacher gave me small cards with questions such as: What is your name? What is your favorite movie? What do you do on the weekend? How many people in your family?

We proceeded to get to know each other through these questions. The students asked me questions, too.

Then the teacher provided worksheets about the kind of things it is OK and not OK to talk about at work or to do in an interview. The worksheets also discussed body language in interviews. We practiced interviewing for a job.

Other staff showed up from time to time, reminding me of being in a hospital, where someone pops in to take your blood pressure and someone else suddenly arrives to check your chart or ask if you want to talk to a social worker. The people popping in at JVS were staff members focused on employment. A young man told my three students that on Saturday the restaurant Pret a Manger would be hiring people and did anyone want to come? He said it is a very supportive partner company. He noted that one person doesn’t eat pork and was able to ascertain that she wouldn’t want to work there as she might have to handle pork. She was a Christian from Ethiopia, and I found the prohibition against pork intriguing, especially has she later mentioned that she likes wine. The other woman said she would come Saturday. The man didn’t have his work papers yet, but another staff member popped in to help him take care of that.

Later, that student said I had helped him a lot and hoped I would come back again. All the volunteers had a wonderful time and are trying to figure out when they can volunteer again, although we will have to do it on our own time.

Photo: Jewish Vocational Service

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