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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio

Two organizations that serve immigrants and refugees in Iowa are starting programs to help address the worker shortage in the state.

La Luz Centro Cultural is based in Hampton. It provides services for Latino immigrants and other Latino communities. Des Moines-based Genesis Youth Foundation provides services mainly for young African refugees and also their families. They each won a $50,000 grant from Google to help “upskill” Iowans. Now, they’ve announced their plans for how to use the funds.

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La Luz has arranged for the funding to go toward upgrading and renovating their facilities to better serve programs like English-language classes. Director Claudia Rivera described their building currently has a more industrial structure that isn’t really suited for classrooms. Eventually, La Luz also wants to add a kitchen to fun in-house cultural cooking classes. They also want to host computer classes in the future.

“It’s hard to learn in that environment. So that’s why you know, that money, we’re trying to reserve it for that, but we’re running on fumes too,” Riversa said.

She and Genesis Youth Foundation co-owner and executive director Sam Gabriel said although $50,000 sounds like a lot, it will just go toward starting the new programs and getting them running. They said they look forward to continued community support to ensure their new programs keep running.

Genesis Youth Foundation will use the funding to hire a new coordinator and create an entire mentorship program around the position. This in turn, Gabriel explained, will also help introduce career paths to refugee parents.

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“The big thing is access. We want people to understand that people may not be involved in things or be in a space, or taking advantage of an opportunity because just the big key this is access. Do they even know if something like that exists? If they do, how do they get to it? We are constantly breaking down information and removing barriers,” Gabriel said.

Studies have found immigrants and refugees may face increased barriers in accessing the job market, including language skills and unfamiliarity with the U.S. workforce. The two organizations were also awarded 75 Google Career Certificates to offer on a scholarship basis. They include data analytics, IT support, project management and user experience design.

“It’s about education and empowerment. That’s what we always strive for in our community and making sure that people have access to any opportunity that is out there,” Rivera said. “We want to make sure that we have quality employees and our jobs are being filled. So hopefully, this fills a niche and expands opportunities for many of the people.”

It’s estimated nearly two-thirds of new jobs created in the past ten years require at least some digital skills, but the current workforce isn’t able to meet those needs.

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“As we address workforce shortages in Iowa, we must ensure that all Iowans have an opportunity to learn skills for in-demand fields and find new career opportunities,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a press release.

La Luz Centro Cultural and Genesis Youth Foundation added their services are not solely for Latino immigrants or African refugees. Gabriel said as these programs flourish, they can encourage more immigrants and refugees to apply for jobs they initially might have avoided due to lack of skill or confidence.

“The big benefit here is: it makes Iowa look welcoming, and intentionally being inclusive. And I always speak about leveling the playing field. So this can be huge for Iowa, this could draw more talent to Iowa,” he said.

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