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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SEPTEMBER  2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 1
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COMING TO AMERICA - From terminology to resume pointers, Cooper Union’s job-oriented program helps immigrant engineers build their American dreams. - Larissa Akerman, a former chemical engineer  from Moscow in charge  of Bnai Zion’s effort. - Photography by EVAN KAFKA

By Mary Lord

It’s early evening in Manhattan, but as the rest of the city heads to the nearest trendy watering hole, a dozen Russian engineers quietly gather in an East Village classroom for a different kind of power meal. There, they will spend the next two hours chewing over blueprints and struggling to digest the details of safety codes and construction contracts.

How do bid forms (00 41 00) differ from stipulated sums (00 72 13)? Should porta-potties count as temporary utilities or construction facilities? Such are the nuts and bolts of Building Cost Estimating, one of more than 20 free immigrant retraining courses offered by Cooper Union for
the Advancement of Science and Art.

Guest instructor Arkadiy Lyansky can relate to the bewilderment of his scientist-students, whose duties back home never involved bids, let alone 150 trade unions and estimates for every phase and plan. Thirteen years ago, Lyansky, a former chief engineer of Gomel in Belarus, USSR, was newly arrived in the United States, on welfare and equally at sea in the world of American commercial engineering. Ira Pierce and Arkadiy LyanskySo tonight he laces his lesson on cost estimators—those experts who translate design specifications into tons of cement and the dollars to pour it—with examples from his own successful practice. Among them: the $1 billion transformation of Midtown’s landmark Farley Post Office into the world’s largest transportation hub. “You come to class,” Lyansky assures his fellow émigrés in heavily accented English, “I promise, you find a job.”

The American dream—formally known as the Immigrant Engineer Re-Training Program—began simply enough with the Bnai Zion Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest Jewish philanthropies, seeking to help former Soviet engineers and scientists find work. Student turnout for Bnai Zion’s job skills classes soon outstripped the available space, so in 1991, the organization turned to Cooper Union’s Albert Nerken School of Engineering for courses, instructors, and classrooms. The ensuing collaboration between Bnai Zion and Cooper Union allowed the former to focus on outreach, career counseling, and English workshops, while the school further developed the course offerings.

Propelled by word of mouth, library fliers, and Russian-language radio ads, demand for the short, narrowly targeted classes continues to swell. So far, more than 3,000 students have gone through the program, which is funded totally by outside foundations. And half have gone on to professional positions. While few end up “making a mint,” says Larissa Akerman, the former chemical engineer from Moscow in charge of Bnai Zion’s effort, it sure beats the dole. Students entering the program in 2002 typically earned about $9,000 a year; after training, the average salary jumped to $25,000.

“It’s the most satisfying program I’ve ever been involved with,” says Cooper Union’s engineering school dean, Eleanor Baum, who saw her own immigrant father struggle to find work in America. “With a little bit of help and a push in the right direction, you change people’s lives.”

The secret: small, hands-on classes with occupation-specific content, be it Java programming or licensing-test preparation. “The university is quite clear that this is not continuing education, not a degree program,” says program director Fred Fontaine. “It’s vocational education.” The program’s unabashed focus on employment is what truly distinguishes it from traditional adult education. Since students can’t afford to spend two years pursuing a degree, the emphasis is on quick, intense courses that closely track market demand. During the dot-com heyday, Web design and programming classes dominated the curriculum; today, it’s courses in Linux administration, quality control, and hospital safety codes. Next under consideration: computer-network security and cryptography. Ira N. Pierce, a Cooper Union graduate and former highway engineer-turned inventor who teaches the cost-estimating and construction course, sums up the program’s goal: “Our function here is to get them a job.”


Community Involvement

Job training may seem a departure from academia’s usual script, but it’s entirely consistent with Cooper Union’s long history of activism and community outreach. After all, this is the school that, over the years, provided a public platform for abolitionists, feminists, and U.S. presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, helping to catalyze such social icons as the Red Cross and the NAACP. Founded in 1859 by self-taught industrialist and Jell-O inventor Peter Cooper as a world-class polytechnic institute for talented underprivileged kids, Cooper Union pioneered the concept of continuing education, offering free night courses for working-class men and women. Early offerings included training in the nascent fields of photography, “type-writing,” and shorthand.

“Civic responsibility was very much a core value that [Cooper] wanted to inculcate into the institution,” explains the school’s current president, George Campbell Jr. “We have tried to maintain the fundamental attitude of that mission.” Campbell also notes that “the invisible profession of engineering” has been a traditional route to upward mobility for many disadvantaged and immigrant families.

Still, teaching Russian rocket scientists new business tricks posed some challenges initially. Used to lecturing bright undergraduates, Cooper Union’s faculty was suddenly faced with foreign professionals with limited English-speaking abilities, outdated skills, and often-inflated expectations. These are people who tend to be highly educated but often not in the right areas. Some may have run their enterprise with 200 workers but have no idea how to write an updated résumé; or they may be the world’s expert on a motor—but one that is 40 years out of date. “Imagine coming to the U.S. with a Ph.D. in hydrology but knowing nothing about building codes,” says Fontaine. “Who’s going to hire you?”

Who indeed? Many immigrants omit their advanced degrees from résumés in the hope of getting a foot in the door. In desperation, most settle for low-wage jobs as bank tellers or sales clerks, which erode their professional currency further. Some, like Lyansky, wind up on the dole. “In the old country, he was a ‘somebody,’” laments Pierce, Lyansky’s mentor and first instructor. “Here, he became a welfare body!”

Administrators of the program learned quickly that this “very different sort of student” demands unusual instructors. For starters, says Fontaine, teachers must speak slowly and clearly, lest the fine points fly by in “Noow Yawk” rapid clip. (The great problem with my students is their English capabilities,” says construction guru Pierce, who considered pupil Lyansky “unreachable” until he noticed everyone in the class deferring to him.) Empathy helps, too, since students need a good deal of one-on-one career counseling. Some of the best instructors are practitioners who can spice up lessons with real-world examples; not surprisingly, many are themselves graduates of the program. Lyansky, for example, tells students about the kinds of questions to expect on the state licensing exam and how cost estimators need to distill figures for a $650-million project down from hundreds of pages.

Careful applicant screening also helps ensure success. Bnai Zion’s Akerman, an early graduate who champions the program she now administers, interviews prospective students for half an hour, evaluating their education, work experience, and communication skills. She culls those with weak qualifications and ensures that those who do enroll understand that they can’t become specialists in three months, though they might emerge as cost estimators or programmers. In addition, each class—limited to between five and 10 students—designates a captain who can inform the professor if he is speaking too quickly or suggest switching the meeting time to accommodate work schedules. Students also gain use of Cooper’s library, giving them access not only to the massive technical collection but also to peers with whom to talk shop. When Akerman was in the program, she spent long hours at the library meeting with like-minded colleagues, and she notes that the camaraderie often proves to be as crucial to an immigrant’s success as the course study or job prospects. “And it’s not just about making money,” she says. “These are scientists who want to work with other scientists.”

Indeed, instructor Pierce’s spring course included a recently arrived architect, a mechanical engineer with expertise in sheet metal cold-stamping, and a civil engineer with 10 years experience in construction. “It gave me confidence,” says Inna Zaltsman, who is taking the class for the second time. Back home in Minsk, Zaltsman was a civil engineer who worked as a theater lighting designer. Arriving in America in 1979 without speaking a word of English, she eventually found work creating lighting systems for schools. When her business opportunities plummeted following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Zaltsman turned to work as a bank teller, then tried to break into real estate—yet little panned out. Now she has returned to be with her fellow émigré engineers, soaking up the details of cost estimating. Plus, she adds, “they keep the library open so that I can learn at my own pace.”

Like Zaltsman, most students are determined, but staying the course is not easy. Many quit after the first few classes, overwhelmed by linguistic and cultural barriers, as well as the demands of their lives. Lyansky, too, almost dropped out. “I came to the United States 13 years ago with no money,” he recalls. “I’m smart. I don’t want to change my career. I don’t want to be a driver. I had heard that everyone here has a job. But I sent out 100 résumés and didn’t get one ‘yes.’”

Getting Up to Speed

When students join the immigrant retraining program, familiarity with engineering fundamentals is assumed—there’s no instruction in basic circuitry. Instead, students must come up to speed quickly on acronyms and equipment. “We give them the right terminology, the specifications, and the processes, and we update their knowledge for the marketplace,” Akerman says. She knows how tough it can be—in 20 years of analyzing chemicals in Moscow, Akerman, too, had never encountered high-performance lipid chromatography, let alone putting such machinery to use. She adds that knowing the current jargon scores points with prospective employers. If an applicant’s speech sounds translated straight from the dictionary, employers get the wrong picture. A little bit of slang or new professional terminology can go a long way.

Ditto for such Employment 101 essentials as résumé writing and networking. In his cost-estimating class, veteran civil engineer Pierce not only covers PS&E--plans, specifications, and estimates—now “I also teach them how to market themselves.” He has students create multiple résumés, eyeballing each for missing pieces like “the” or “a”—a common translating mistake from Russian—and highlighting any experience “that will stand out like an asterisk.” Pierce also takes them to professional conferences where often “they’re surprised how interested people are in talking to them.” And he sometimes serves as a go-between with prospective employers, as well. Pierce once called a U.S. tank commander about openings when the former head of East Germany’s tank management landed in his class. (No luck. He was laying off American engineers at the time!) “This man knows all about the tanks you’re trying to beat!” Pierce protested, decrying America’s lack of technology policy. “We dispose of our high-tech people after spending a fortune training them, and it’s terrible. Einstein would be on welfare!”

Pierce knows from his own experience that retraining can be essential. In the 1980s, when he realized the environmental movement “was going to kill my career as a highway engineer,” Pierce retrained as a construction consultant and built a thriving business restoring skyscrapers. While that experience made him empathetic with his immigrant engineering students, transferring it to the classroom prompted a lot of self-examination. He pondered all the things one does to succeed, seeking to identify seemingly unimportant, but crucial, steps such as networking, joining professional societies, and attending monthly meetings. “I really had to think about how I managed to land my jobs and what made me go into private practice.”

The distillation of Pierce’s reflection bubbles up every week in his Cost Estimating, Buildings, and Bridges class. A recent Thursday found him trying to explain the numerical system that lays out every design specification and safety requirement on a construction project. “This is the road map,” he says, pointing to a handout with line after mind-numbing line of zeroes and ones. “How many people have heard of the Dewey decimal system?” Pierce asks, likening construction plans to the library’s system for cataloging books. Heads nod. “Decimals, yes!” one student says. But it’s clear that the students are thinking about the decimal point. So Pierce turns the class over to his former star student Arkadiy Lyansky, who proceeds to demonstrate the connection between the abstract numerical roster and a real-time project—the glass stairs that his firm is building for Times Square’s iconic half-price ticket booth. Role models like Lyansky are as important for their inspirational value as for the information they impart. Akerman notes, “You hear some success stories, your classmate got a job, and you think, ‘Maybe I will, too.’”

Indeed, at times Pierce’s classes sound like revival meetings. At one recent session, students broke into applause upon learning that Svetlana Martisova, a young Russian architect who emigrated last year, had snagged a job interview after sending her first résumé. They networked with two visitors who build low-income housing and exchanged business cards and ideas. And they looked on with awe as former student Larisa Maksimova unrolled her latest blueprints as she explained how to count rivets and figure cubic feet of concrete.

Svetlana MaksimovaThough she had come to teach cost estimating, Maksimova’s take-home lesson was all about confidence. Nine years ago, the newly graduated Russian civil engineer arrived in the United States with little English, no experience in construction, and no job prospects. She worked as a receptionist in a medical office while struggling to find a more interesting, better-paying position. Then Maksimova heard about Cooper Union’s immigrant retraining program on Russian radio and decided to enroll. After completing her courses in 2001, skills she gleaned from the cost-estimating class helped her land a job in general contracting, where she spent three years learning every trade, craft, wiring scheme, and widget. Today, at 33, the former receptionist embodies the American dream, pulling down a six-and-a-half-figure salary, estimating costs for bank buildings and Whole Foods Markets. “I have a summer house in Pennsylvania, and my kids go to private school,” says Maksimova. In short, life is good.

Perhaps few graduates will reach the lofty heights Maksimova has, but most will move from earning $10,000 in menial jobs to $30,000 as professionals. “We’re not recycling, we’re re-educating in the American sense of the word,” Pierce says.

Today, many of America’s huddled masses are foreign professionals with advanced degrees—and they’re huddling over blueprints and specs. With help from Cooper Union’s Immigrant Engineer Re-Training Program, these men and women are ready to do what it takes to succeed in their new lives.

Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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COMING TO AMERICA - By Mary Lord
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