"To say that SACA and Tec Centro changed my life would be a complete understatement," Frank Bailey told a group of Democratic legislators on Thursday.
Last year, Bailey explained, he was released after serving 7 1/2 years in state prison and was determined to start fresh. A fellow reentrant told him about Tec Centro's six-month job training courses in Lancaster. He graduated from the commercial & industrial electro-mechanical program — a field he said he had never heard of until he enrolled — and is now employed at Mars Wrigley in Elizabethtown.
"People like me … all they need is a launchpad," he said. "… This can change anybody's life."
Baliey was one of three Tec Centro graduates who spoke as panelists at a workforce hearing convened by members of the Pennsylvania House Democrats' Central Pa. Regional Caucus. A second panel featured Tec Centro Lancaster's Associate Director Reinaldo Rivera and two instructors from Tec Centro's sister site in Reading.
Founded a decade ago by the Spanish American Civic Association, Tec Centro provides bilingual workforce training at two sites in Lancaster: Its headquarters, the William Reuter Workforce Center at 102 Chester St., and Tec Centro West at the corner of High and Laurel streets, the site of Thursday's hearing.
Former SACA CEO Carlos Graupera now heads the nonprofit Tec Centro Workforce Network, which is establishing sites in other cities around Central Pennsylvania. Tec Centro Berks and Tec Centro Lebanon are up and running, and organizers say they expect Tec Centro York and Tec Cento Capital Region in Harrisburg to come online this year.
Each operates independently, supported by the network and coalitions of local community organizations. The training programs, which cost thousands of dollars per student, are offered almost entirely free of charge. Most students pay around $100, with the rest offset by public and private grants and donations.
In 2022-23, the Tec Centro Workforce Network secured its first state budget appropriation, $5 million, which leveraged another $18 million in private funding.
For 2023-24, the state increased its support to $8 million, said Jose Lopez, SACA CEO and the Workforce Network's board chairman. For 2024-25, the network will be seeking $15 million, he said.
'Ability to scale'
Graupera was not able to attend Thursday's hearing. In a statement he said: "Workforce development is the most essential piece to a thriving economy and society as a whole. Our fast-growing model provides the ability to scale bilingual workforce development facilities in third-class cities throughout the Commonwealth."
The testimony at Thursday's hearing buttressed that thesis. The Tec Centro model works, students, faculty and administrators told the legislators.
Jatzia Vasa and Priscilla Valerio both graduated from the Tec Centro Berks certified nurse aide program and took jobs at The Highlands retirement community in Wyomissing. Both are pursuing further education in hope of becoming nurses. Like Bailey, they described their Tec Centro experience as life-changing.
"I love what I do," Valerio said.
The graduation rate for the workforce programs exceeds 80%, and graduates are able to secure family-sustaining jobs, Barbosa said with wages averaging around $20 an hour. A key factor, Reinaldo said, is the array of wraparound services, which help students achieve stability and conduct their job hunt effectively.
As a community-based initiative, Tec Centro can be more flexible and attuned to grassroots needs than state-funded workforce development boards, Tec Centro Berks instructor Auria Bradley said. Among other things, it can serve more students because it doesn't set income thresholds for participation, said Rafael Torres, founder of WEPA, Tec Centro Lebanon's parent nonprofit.
Before the hearing, Tec Centro Director Marlyn Barbosa offered legislators a tour of the building, where a $5 million renovation is wrapping up. Classes hosted there include HVAC, electro-mechanical technology, plumbing and IT systems, all offered in partnership with Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
State Rep. Jordan Harris of Philadelphia, a key champion of Pennsylvania's Clean Slate law, said Bailey's story shows the importance of providing second chances to reentrants and giving them the opportunity to become productive members of the community.
He told Valerio and Vasa, who are both the mothers of young children, that their career choices will set up their children and grandchildren for success. By way of example, he cited his own mother, who parlayed night classes at community college into a Temple University degree, a career in teaching and a path out of the Philly projects for her and her son, who now has two degrees himself.
State Rep. Manny Guzman, D-Berks, noted that Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in Pennsylvania, entering the workforce in large numbers as a predominantly White Baby Boomer generation ages out. Policymakers need to take note, he said, and think about ways to reduce barriers to this new generation's success.
Nurses like Vasa and Valerio are among the essential workers Pennsylvania needs most, state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, D-Lancaster, said. Building a middle-class life from scratch is "quite literally the American Dream, and that is what Tec Centro is doing," he said.