Kay Litman has heard the refrain about the economy repeatedly.

Unemployment is at a 40-year low, people will say. But for many, that isn’t the problem; it’s underemployment, said the executive director of Tec Centro Lebanon, and the inability to earn a life-sustaining wage to support themselves and their families.

That’s where Tec Centro Lebanon – which hopes to fill that void – comes in. Modeled after the highly successful Tec Centro Lancaster, which also spawned Tec Centro York and Tec Centro Berks, the workforce development program in Lebanon is a division of the WEPA Empowerment Center.

In 2021, the Working to Empower People for Advancement Center was incorporated and decided to adopt the Tec Centro template to address underemployment.

The organizers of Tec Centro Lebanon said that the center will open this summer. From left to right, Rafael Torres, WEPA co-founder and board president; Carlos Graupera, executive director, Tec Centro Workforce Network; Kay Litman, executive director, Tec Centro Lebanon; Maribel Torres, co-founder, WEPA; and Jose Lopez, CEO, Spanish American Civic Association. (Provided photo)

Rafael Torres, who co-founded WEPA with his wife, Maribel, said that “we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

But it’s exciting to see Tec Centro nearly ready to begin its first phase, he said. Lebanon County Commissioners allocated $750,000 in pandemic recovery funds that enabled WEPA to buy and renovate a building at 9 S. Ninth St. in Lebanon.

Tec Centro Lebanon is located at 9 S. Ninth St. in Lebanon. (Provided photo)

Read More: Commissioners approve $750K ARPA grant for workforce empowerment center

Tec Centro Lebanon will be part of the recently incorporated Tec Centro Workforce Network. The nonprofit umbrella organization will serve also serve the Tec Centros in Lancaster, Reading and York, allowing them to share best practices and collaborate on fundraising and lobbying for state support for workforce development.

This summer, the first phase of Tec Centro Lebanon will open with employment services and case management, helping people get connected to good-paying jobs, Litman said.

The second phase will start after Labor Day, she said, with literacy education including English as a second language courses; GED and HiSET preparation; English and Spanish digital literacy; and financial literacy.

“This is really huge for people,” Litman said.

The third phase, workforce training, begins in spring 2024. First classes to be available are for jobs in the medical field, including certified nurse aide (10-week program) and phlebotomy technician (20-week program). Courses will be provided by HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.

Later that year and in 2025, more job skills training will be added, based on employer needs, she said.

Courses may have a $25 to $50 processing fee plus the cost of books/uniforms, a criminal background check and, if needed, a medical exam. However, financial support is available.

“WEPA does not want to create financial barriers for anyone looking to access training,” Tec Centro Lebanon’s webpage said.

Litman said Tec Centro is a full-service bilingual education and skills training center that “meets people where they’re at.” One of the missions is to guide them to the many resources available, such as CareerLink and the Literacy Council of Lancaster-Lebanon.

Some individuals may just require assistance finding a better job; others, for example, may need to obtain a GED first and train for a new job that pays a higher wage.

Living paycheck to paycheck

In Lebanon County, 37% of residents live either below the federal poverty level, or above that level but struggle paycheck to paycheck – a group known by the acronym ALICE, for asset-limited, income-constrained, employed, the United Way of Lebanon County reported.

Tec Centro won’t just serve the Latino population, but its staff members will be bilingual, Litman said. “We’re mindful of the language barrier.”

Once the center is operational, “we’re going to be hitting the ground running,” she said. “The need exists and we’re going to try to fill it.”

Many families hold multiple jobs, and with rents so high, dollars don’t go as far as they used to, Litman said. “It’s why people can’t get ahead.”

And more than job skills training is on the curriculum, she said. Soft skills – how to communicate in the workplace, the importance of dependability, etc. – will be taught, too.

Workers will be given “the tools to move forward,” Litman said.

She’s very grateful to the county commissioners for the $750,000 that allowed WEPA to move forward with the purchase and renovation of the Ninth Street building, formerly an Elks lodge and later a church.

The site, which will also host job fairs as Tec Centro teams with local employers, was strategically chosen because it’s within walking distance for many of the people it will serve.

“I’m just excited to be part of this,” Litman said.

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Paula Wolf worked for 31 years as a general assignment reporter, sports columnist, and editorial writer for LNP Media. A graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, she is a lifetime resident of Lancaster County.