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Updated: September 16, 2019 Focus on Health Care & Wellness

Speaking the same language: MaineHealth teams up with Portland immigrant center

Photo / Tim Greenway Jennifer O’Leary, Center for Workforce Development at MaineHealth, center, with Maine Medical Center employees and language learners, Bebe Kabedi, left, and Francisca Ngandu, in the PC Training Room at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Seventeen MaineHealth employees took three to six months of English language learning at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

Bebe Kabedi, 42, once worked as a secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in her native country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

With basic English, the Kinshasa City native landed an entry-level housekeeping job at Maine Medical Center in Portland, MaineHealth’s flagship hospital.

In March, she joined 11 fellow environmental services department employees and five from linen services for three to six months of web-based English-language learning. The MaineHealth-funded pilot program was held at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center (IWC) on Preble Street.

During the last week of lessons, Kabedi tells Mainebiz she feels more confident speaking English at work and even with her five-year-old son at home, along with French. When her child is older, she’d like to further her education.

“I hope to go to college,” she says before heading to work with the others, including a former lawyer and midwife. All have licenses to continue the training for three more months on their own time. They’ll also work with Jennifer O’Leary, manager of MaineHealth’s Center for Workforce Development, to discuss their career trajectories within the organization. The two-person department was set up in November to support, strengthen and create employment opportunities within MaineHealth and the community. It’s working with the first group of immigrant learners to identify career pathways and provide additional ways of improving their English.

“It’s an integrated approach that’s not a one size fits all,” says O’Leary. “It’s workforce development at its core.”

Photo / Tim Greenway
Jennifer O’Leary is manager of the MaineHealth Center for Workforce Development, set up in November to support, strengthen and create employment opportunities within the health care system and the community at large.

‘The right thing to do’

As Maine’s largest private employer with a 19,000-strong workforce across the state, MaineHealth’s workforce-diversity efforts go beyond its own self-interest.

“Our workforce needs to match the needs of patients and the community,” says Judy West, MaineHealth’s chief human resources officer. “Employees come to us at different stages of their lives, and we have a responsibility to develop people so they can be the best they can be in their careers and help them get to where they want to go.”

She also says that the language training is “the right thing to do” for immigrants, many of whom are talented and bright, only to be held back in their professional development after coming to this country because they’re not fluent in English.

That’s not the case at MaineHealth, which encourages motivated employees to move from support-services jobs to more skilled positions, and to take advantage of in-house training programs for jobs including certified nursing assistant training assistants, medical assistants and in surgical technology.

The language learning partnership with the IWC launched in March, with the first cohort extended from three months to six, and the second group is currently being assembled to start this fall.

Voxy’s moxie

The Immigrant Welcome Center’s language lab uses a cloud-based platform developed by Voxy, a venture capital-backed firm based in New York.

Until recently focused on foreign markets, Voxy launched the New Americans Initiative this year to bring eLearning to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through sector-specific training in high-demand careers with upward mobility, like certified nursing assistants and IT help desk technicians.

Voxy’s patented technology, says Chief Education Officer Katie Nielson, is based on evidence that adults learn languages “by doing things with them, so you have to make the content as relevant to their needs and as interesting to them as possible.” Voxy does that by embedding content related to people’s jobs into language training that people can learn at their own pace.

Nielson, a former language teacher and researcher who holds a Ph.D. in second-language acquisition, says that approach is much more effective than traditional methods, saying, “The grammar you need is embedded into the language.”

During last October’s National Immigrant Integration Conference in Arlington, Va., where Nielson was a speaker, Voxy’s moxie made an impression on Alain J. Nahimana, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center and a 2018 Mainebiz Next honoree.

“You learn English for a purpose,” Nahimana says of the platform. “One size fits all in a classroom doesn’t work anymore.”

Damas K. Rugaba, the IWC’s finance and operations chief, adds that Voxy’s offer was also attractive from a price perspective, at a cost of $600 to $1,000 to serve one individual with IT equipment, a year's license and program support, saying: “There’s no class you can sign up for a year for $600. It’s really cost-effective.”

For MaineHealth, Voxy developed a curriculum using content it supplied including employee orientation training materials as well as information about computer security and vocabulary around specific jobs. Rugaba notes that Voxy users can also choose up to two other English courses around their personal interests, from medical interpretation to the restaurant industry — useful working in MaineHealth food services or opening their own business someday.

For all training modules, users can learn at their own pace, get round-the-clock virtual live instruction from certified English teachers and get an objective assessment of their proficiency in speaking, reading, grammar and listening.

Those tests help MaineHealth track employees’ progress, along with feedback from managers such as James Mangini, Maine Med’s linen services director.

He says the five from his department in the first cohort have come a long way, including the class “rock star,” 23-year-old Im Thy from Cambodia.

“It’s been awesome to watch them blossom,” Mangini says.

Leading the way

Bill Horton, Maine Med’s director of environmental services and patient transport, praised his employer for pro-actively hiring immigrants, especially in today’s climate of record-low unemployment.

“We have come to rely heavily on our new Mainers as part of the work force,” he says, “and we work very hard to embrace them and work with them.”

Jennifer L. McCarthy, an industry veteran who joined Maine Med in November as chief operating officer, feels the same way, saying: “We have a responsibility to set the bar high, because other employers will follow.”

As the Immigrant Welcome Center fields queries from other large employers interested in using the Voxy platform, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Quincy Hentzel is optimistic about the possibilities.

“My hope is that other businesses will look at MaineHealth as an example, are able to learn from them, and maybe the Chamber can be the conduit to share best practices,” says Hentzel.

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