The Blog of Toledo Lucas County Public Library
Reynaldo Garcia had bumped up against an invisible ceiling that was every bit as restrictive as any physical barrier. The 49-year-old experienced steel worker could not advance beyond the manual and most physically demanding aspects of the job due to his insufficient language and technology skills.
“My English wasn’t very good, and I didn’t know how to use the computer at all. I used my cellphone only to make calls, because I didn’t know how to do email or anything else,” he said. “I just knew if I didn’t want to be laying rebar for the rest of my life, I’d have to learn those things.”
Garcia’s quandary was not unique among the Spanish-speaking element of the workforce at Foundation Steel, a Swanton-based subcontractor that specializes in structural and reinforcement steel projects. Mario Vargas, who works in employee and business development at Foundation, formed a partnership with the Toledo Lucas County Public Library to address the issue.
“I’d see these guys out on the job site, and some of them had been doing rebar work for 20 years, and there was always that language barrier that prevented them from applying to be a foreman or a supervisor,” Vargas said.
“These men are citizens and they’ve been here for years, but someone who speaks English and understands technology has the opportunity to do so much more. All of the training is in English, and if you are a foreman you have to be able to talk to contractors and use a computer to read blueprints, and that was holding them back.”
Vargas teamed with Celeste Felix-Taylor, manager of the South Branch Library, where a jobs and careers program is in place offering instruction on improving computer, math and reading proficiency, along with assistance in English language skills.
“We are obligated to do what we can to enhance the community, and in this case, that involved assisting these individuals in attaining or maintaining a good job,” Felix-Taylor said. “We wanted to assist these men in any way we could.”
A five-week course was designed to address the specific needs of the Hispanic workers at Foundation Steel, and the program was put into action last fall. To date, approximately two dozen employees have attended the sessions.
“They were really taking on two languages at once, trying to improve their English skills and their understanding of technology,” Felix-Taylor said. The support of upper management at Foundation Steel was essential to the program, and Vargas said he received that from company president and CEO Charlotte Dymarkowski.
“I thought we could do more for these guys, to get them fluent in English and comfortable with all of the technology, so they can use what they know to be leaders,” she said. “Mario took that concept and ran with it. The partnership with the library has done far more than we ever expected. Celeste has been awesome in her support of this.”
Vargas said it was clear that the workers needed to improve their technology skills in conjunction with their English, and added that the first group of men who signed up to take the additional instruction had to attend classes after their long and physically demanding work days.
“That showed me how important this was to them, that these guys really wanted to learn and improve themselves,” he said. “At first, they were even afraid to touch the mouse button – they feared what might happen because it was all so foreign to them.”
Felix-Taylor said there was also attention paid to the effective use of email, social media and improving interviewing techniques.
“We wanted a program that would open doors for these men,” she said. “These are productive men, and having productive men leads to productive families and a productive community, which is what we all want to see. One of my passions is providing services that allow individuals to enhance or improve what they want to be.”
Garcia said the course has given him the necessary skill set to apply for advancement at Foundation Steel.
“I don’t want to carry steel all of my life, and now I have more confidence in my skills. I’m learning what I need to know in order to advance,” Garcia said. “Before this, my daughter had to do everything on the computer for me, but she’ll be going off to college sometime and won’t be around. Now I can use email and the computer myself.”
The course utilized by Garcia has its roots in the Library’s digital and web literacy curriculum. A 2017 poll conducted by the Toledo Business Journal with northwest Ohio companies showed that a primary factor limiting workforce development throughout the region was the lack of digital and web skills.
The Library has sought to play a pivotal role in addressing that issue through its wide range of services, programs and partnerships, such as the effort with Foundation Steel. Similar programs are in place at other companies in the area, including one at Turner Lathrop which works with their School of Construction Management.
Felix-Taylor said she has been encouraged by the response to such programs. “It is so nice to see men who came into this a little doubtful about their abilities in the areas of technology and language first express an interest in attaining a higher position, and then at the end of five weeks, to see how proud they are for having completed this class,” she said. “I feel like we help open the door for people.”
Two sessions of the workforce development program between the Library and Foundation Steel are in the books, with more planned for the coming year. Vargas expects word of mouth from the initial enrollees, several of whom are now planning to apply for advancement in the company, likely will increase the interest among the workforce.
“This is a very big deal for the guys that completed the course,” Vargas said. “Some of these men had never graduated from high school in their home countries, and when they had their families there to watch them get their certificates for the class and be recognized for doing this, it was a very proud and emotional moment. You could see that a lot of lives were going to change for the better because of this.”