Vienna Dunn was nervous to quit her job in the restaurant industry to pursue a bank teller training program through Portland Adult Education, but she knew it was her shot to get back into the industry that had been her home for nearly eight years before she emigrated from China.
Now, a year later, working as a bank teller at Bath Savings Institution in Yarmouth, she’s back in the financial world and said she feels “reborn.”
Dunn is one of 14 students who graduated from the center’s New Mainer Teller Training Program, a new initiative from Portland Adult Education designed to help foreign-trained financial service professionals re-enter their careers after moving to the United States.
The program, which wrapped up its first session last year, launched a second cohort with seven more students in January.
“Maine is fortunate to have a large number of new Mainers with professional backgrounds,” said Elizabeth Love, assistant director of Portland Adult Education.
“Many students are often able to get an entry-level position in their area (but) then are often unable to leverage their skills and expertise in those positions. We’re really looking to help students achieve that next step of pursuing their professional goals and re-entering their fields in the U.S. so that they can fully contribute their knowledge and experience” in Greater Portland, she said.
The 12-week class is a collaboration between Portland Adult Education and eight local banks and credit unions during which students can learn from industry professionals, following the American Banking Association’s Today’s Teller curriculum, as well as customer service, digital, job search, personal finance and cash handling skills.
“The program was designed to really work with new Mainers with professional skills with backgrounds in this field and with (people from) financial programs who are looking for diverse talent,” Love said. “We work to be a connector between those two groups, to address the regional labor shortage and support foreign trades professionals here in Maine.”
Of the first 14 students, 11 are now employed full time, and eight work in banking.
“For us, that is a significant accomplishment,” Love said.
Dunn is glad to be working with numbers and money again and said the American way of banking is significantly easier than in China.
“It’s amazing,” she said, adding that she is “all smiles every day. I feel so happy here.”
Dunn is grateful for the teller training program, an opportunity she said took a lot of bravery to pursue.
“It’s helping a lot of people to get a job, especially in banks,” she said. “Seeing the information, seeing the experience, I feel comfortable to work at any bank. The teachers are great. They are all kind and they have the patience to help you if you are struggling.”
The class had to move online midway through because of the coronavirus pandemic, and for a while Dunn was worried she wouldn’t be able to get a job.
But eventually, she saw an opening at Bath Savings Institution in Yarmouth and was shocked at how fast the hiring process was.
“I’m so grateful I have a chance to be here,” she said.
Portland Adult Education has a number of other sector-specific workforce training programs for its students, ranging from health care and education to transportation, but it’s the industry involvement that Love believes helps set the teller training program apart. Officials are interested in expanding the model to other industries.
The program is financed through city tax increment financing revenue, known as TIFs. TIFs are a tool used by municipalities to capture tax revenue from certain districts to be used for future development or special projects.
Dunn’s story is a familiar one to many immigrants.
In 2018, approximately 2.2 million college-educated immigrants in the U.S. labor market were either unemployed or working in low-skilled jobs due to, among other hurdles, the difficulty of getting their credentials recognized, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.
The institute refers to this situation as “brain waste,” which impacts 20.7 percent of college-educated immigrants and 15.8 percent of U.S.-born college graduates, according to 2019 data from the organization.
“I’m so proud of and impressed by the students in both classes,” Love said. “Their level of dedication and perseverance and commitment is unparalleled, especially given the pandemic and everything we are all juggling personally and professionally.”