The first group of students to enter JVS Boston’s Food Industry Training program, funded by a $325,000 Learn to Earn grant awarded by Commonwealth Corporation, received their ServSafe certificates at a graduation ceremony at Spaulding Hospital in Cambridge on Jan. 8.
Designed by the Executive Offices of Labor and Workforce Development, Education, Health and Human Services and Housing and Economic Development, Learn to Earn is a comprehensive approach to providing individuals who are receiving assistance from public benefit programs with the supports, skills, and credentials they need to gain and retain employment in occupations for which employers have persistent demand.
JVS’ program trains young adults with a documented disability and who receive public assistance. In addition to Spaulding Hospital, JVS is also partnering with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, NewBridge on the Charles/Hebrew SeniorLife, Whole Foods Market, and the MassHire Downtown Boston Career Center on preparing young adults for food service careers.
Program graduate Alix told attendees at the Wednesday afternoon ceremony how she and her fellow classmates would spend two days a week in a classroom setting, learning about food safety, receiving financial coaching, and developing the soft skills employers seek in the workforce like time management. Three days a week, the students would work in the Spaulding Hospital kitchen, where Alix worked on the line plating food for patients and assisting in the preparation and proportioning of meals.
Learning and working in a professional setting helped Alix overcome her anxiety about meeting new people, working in an unfamiliar environment and stretching herself beyond her comfort zone.
“This led to me able to initiate tasks more independently and confidently,” she said. “In the past, I would not be vocal when I found myself stuck in situations where I needed clearer instructions. This became a bad habit of mine, because I stopped advocating for myself and I became timid while at work. Throughout the program, I was guided by JVS staff and learned the importance of self-advocacy, thus improving my work ethic.”
JVS President and CEO Jerry Rubin spoke about serving on Governor Charlie Baker’s task force that examined how to address chronic unemployment in Massachusetts, which led to the creation of the Learn to Earn Initiative. He said when that task force was meeting, the state unemployment rate was around 8 percent, as opposed to the 2.5 percent rate today and subsequent tight labor market.
“When we were at 8 percent, it was certainly true we want to bring everyone in, but at 2.5 percent, we not only want to bring everyone in, we have to bring everyone in,” Rubin said, adding that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities continues to be “outrageously high” compared to the overall unemployment rate. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that, in that situation, anyone who has talent and wants bring that talent to work can’t find a job and can’t give those talents to the employer, the community, and of course to themselves for their own improvement. The LTE project that we’ve been involved with and being partnered with Spaulding in trying to address this issue is a real privilege.”
Anthony Britt, Commonwealth Corporation associate director of Sector Strategies, noted that a successful program and continued success for the graduates requires teamwork, which also includes the support of the trainees’ friends and family.
“You have a great team behind you … Whether it’s Micah [Fleisig, JVS manager of Transitions to Work], your coaches or someone from Spaulding, I encourage you to stay in touch with them to support you,” Britt said. “There’s no shame in looking back at your team and getting support. Your experience helps inform [the initiative]. You’re five people sitting here, but you’re also [helping] folks across the state who might be in other programs.”
Spaulding Director of Workforce Programs Colleen Moran echoed Britt’s comments on how support from family and friends is critical to program participants’ success, and that as the first group to graduate from the program, their experiences will inform and improve the program.
“It really helps to already have one cohort in to know where the challenges are, where the successes are and to be able to talk to the new students about what you guys are doing,” Moran told the graduates.
Spaulding Patient Service Manager Greg Lesperance lauded the graduates’ dedication to punctuality, focus and professionalism, noting how the group was always looking for the next task that needed to be done when in the kitchen.
“It was encouraging to see how excited you were about the program and how much you wanted to learn — truly inspiration,” Lesperance said. “I received cards from all of you, but it was thanks enough to see the excitement you guys had each and every day. Be assured that the skills you learned are not limited to working in the food service industry. They will serve you well in all that you do.