In the midst of the migrant crisis, there is opportunity: thousands of new arrivals eager to find jobs that employers around the state are desperate to fill.
And those mutual needs are starting to be met. Migrants living in at-capacity emergency shelters are trickling into the workforce: packaging cooking oil in Ayer, caring for patients with developmental disabilities in Waltham, gearing up to clean hospital rooms in Salem.
But getting to that point has required a massive undertaking. After holding clinics to speed up the work authorization process, the state launched a job skills training program that allows migrants living in shelters to start learning — and earning a stipend — while they wait for the US government to issue them work permits, and just announced two new hires dedicated to connecting migrants with jobs. Workers from MassHire Career Centers are going into shelters to connect migrants with English classes and help them find jobs. And employers are opening their doors to shelter residents — donating space for training sessions and even hiring translators to assist new hires.
Salem Hospital has offered housekeeping jobs to six Haitian migrants living at a shelter nearby on the campus of Salem State University, and filling them would be a major milestone.
“If we place these six people, it will be the first time in years that the department is fully staffed,” said Joy Livramento-Bryant, a workforce development specialist at the hospital.
Migrants have been streaming into Massachusetts, many fleeing violence and poverty in Haiti, escalating the state’s longstanding housing crisis. In the fall, shelters hit a newly imposed capacity limit of 7,500 families, causing people to be turned away for the first time and thrusting the effort to get migrants into the workforce into high gear.
There are nearly 222,000 open jobs in Massachusetts — more than twice the number of unemployed people in the state — including lower-wage positions that are difficult to fill. Migrants “are doing the jobs that Americans don’t want to do,” said Gabriel Vonleh, chief executive of the Waltham developmental disabilities nonprofit Opportunities for Inclusion, who is from Liberia and has assisted with job training for new arrivals.
It’s unclear how many new arrivals have found employment so far, but a system is starting to take shape.
Kensonn Brutal is one of the migrants set to start at Salem Hospital, where the cleaning staff makes between $35,000 and $50,000 a year. After waiting nine months for a work permit, he has high hopes the job will lead to bigger and better things.
Brutal, 37, studied accounting in Haiti and worked in a bank handling small business loans. He and his wife and two young daughters, one born a year ago at Salem Hospital, are living in a former dorm room at Salem State and anxious to get a place of their own. Brutal is also participating in the state’s new job skills training program, working alongside housing advocates at Centerboard, the Lynn nonprofit that operates emergency shelters around the state, including the one where he lives. Brutal takes English classes and has his sights set on college — and financial independence.
“You have to start small,” said Brutal, who speaks English, Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole.
But Livramento-Bryant at Salem Hospital assured Brutal there was plenty of room to grow, telling him, “One day you might be the head of our finance department.”
Migrants trying to establish themselves in a new country, and earn enough money to afford a place of their own, are motivated to work. Some of the potential housekeepers at Salem Hospital, accustomed to working seven days a week in Haiti, are already requesting overtime shifts. Three migrants who started working as machine operators at Catania Oils in Ayer in November pooled their money to buy a car to commute between their shelter in Gardner and the plant roughly 25 miles away — then found someone to drive them since they don’t have licenses.
“These folks are very resourceful. If you give them an opportunity, they will find ways to make it happen,” said Staci Johnson, director of the MassHire North Central Career Center in Leominster, who helped place the workers at Catania Oils and has also found jobs for other migrants as stockers and package handlers.
Employers looking to hire migrants need to be resourceful, too, she said.
Catania Oils was so eager to hire migrants for the hard-to-fill 3-11:30 p.m. shift that the company was willing to pay translators more than $30,000 to be onsite for the first six months as the workers learned the ropes. Catania, which started offering free English-language classes to employees and community members last year, soon realized there were other Haitian Creole speakers on staff who could fill the role instead. Still, the expense would have been worth it, said Annemarie Abdo, vice president of human resources.
“They’re very excited to be here,” she said.
In mid-December, the City of Boston interviewed clients of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan and identified about 20 mostly Haitian migrants as possible hires for jobs doing snow removal, cleaning, library work, and security. The city already offers on-demand interpretation for employees and is working on translating documents and creating a human resources toolkit detailing various immigration statuses and renewal deadlines.
Ridiane Denis, who came to the United States from Haiti as a child and runs the clinical research unit at Boston University’s medical school, started a nonprofit last fall to train new arrivals in patient care. Using space at Opportunities for Inclusion, the Waltham social services organization, Denis and her team trained 28 Haitian migrants over four Saturdays, followed by a three-day internship, on everything from how to use Zoom and navigate the bus system to CPR, infection control, and patient confidentiality.
The trainees, who were teachers, accountants, medical technologists, masonry workers, and nursing students in Haiti, were so eager to learn that they would leave as early as 4:30 a.m. to take public transportation to Waltham, often arriving an hour early. Two have been hired by Opportunities for Inclusion.
“They want to contribute,” said Denis, her voice breaking as she recalled their stories, including a woman with a child who pleaded with Denis to help her get a job. “They don’t want handouts.”
A wait list of 40 is already in place for the next training session.
Mark DeJoie, chief executive of Centerboard, has a front-row seat to both the urgent need for workers and the state’s overflowing shelter system. His company runs shelters housing more than 600 families in Essex County, and has around 30 job openings at his nonprofit. To address both needs, Centerboard is paying six migrants roughly $15 an hour for on-the-job training in landscaping, maintenance, cleaning, translation, and case management as part of the state’s new job skills training program. Centerboard plans to hire these migrants once they complete the 24-week program and have work permits.
Getting these migrants into the workforce is crucial for everyone, including the bursting-at-the-seams shelter system, DeJoie said.
“If you don’t make any money . . . I’m going to be hard-pressed to get you into some sort of alternative housing,” he said.
Some migrant families, including those here legally from Haiti, qualify for state and federal cash assistance — but generally just a few hundred dollars per person.
JVS Boston has also turned its attention to the migrant crisis in Massachusetts. The workforce development provider, which has long worked with immigrants and refugees, is putting together a program to teach English to shelter residents, in addition to job screening, paid for, in part, by potential employers.
“There’s a lot of executive buy-in right now,” said Mandy Townsend, senior vice president of employer engagement at JVS.
Beyond the shelters, the influx of migrants and the ongoing labor shortage are also prompting longer-term solutions. In 2022, Cambridge immigration attorney Leslie Ditrani founded Pathway for Immigrant Workers, a nonprofit offering pro bono legal services for employers who want to sponsor lower-wage employees for legal permanent resident status but can’t afford the $10,000-$15,000 per person cost.
Ditrani, who says her nonprofit is the first of its kind in the country, is in the process of assessing a dozen employees for the Charles River Center in Needham, which serves people with developmental disabilities. Employers can use the service as a recruiting tool, she said, and the two-year average processing time serves as a way to retain workers, too.
“For employers, it’s an added benefit they can offer for very little cost,” Ditrani said. “For employees, it’s life changing.”