One has only to drive down the city streets to know that workers are in high demand since the pandemic. Lebanon businesses looking for skilled labor have hung many “Help wanted” signs across their doors.
“There’s a lot of jobs out there (and) there are a lot of people that have those degrees, but with the language barrier they are underemployed,” said Susan Eberly, president of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corporation.
For months, community leaders have been drafting a plan to tackle those skill divides, including the language barrier, simply by saying “WEPA.”
The Working to Empower People for Advancement, or WEPA, empowerment center is where community leaders hope to provide education, community development, and intercultural engagement for Lebanon County. Co-founder Rafael Torres said the center will be a “one-stop shop” for job training and skills programs.
“This project is a community effort, because that’s what it’s going to take,” he said.
Organizers are partnering with Tec Centro, which has operated a similar center out of Lancaster for eight years. An initiative of the Spanish American Civic Association, Tec Centro works with organizations such as the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology to train and certify students in a variety of programs, including electrical, heating and plumbing skills.
The focus of these programs is workforce language, according to organizers. By bringing together community, non-profit and government leaders on this project, residents will have a bilingual adult education center to help develop all the skills they need in the workplace.
“We need to create that awareness of all the moving partners in this community, bring them all together to work towards that common goal,” Torres said.
The word “wepa” is a common Puerto Rican expression of jubilation, often understood as “awesome” or “amazing.” With this project, WEPA has now become a rallying call for the community.
“As soon as we talk to people about the WEPA empowerment center, right away their face lights up because it means something personal to them,” co-founder Maribel Gonzalez said.
Since last year, organizers have been reaching out to groups including the Sexual Assault Resource and Counseling Center and the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corporation. Organizers and community leaders shared their ideas for WEPA with the Lebanon County Commissioners and workshop meeting July 21.
Commissioner Robert Philips said he knows a talented mechanic who was planning to take over a local business, but could not pass the inspection licensing equivalency because of the language barriers.
“The nuances in the language make it difficult for him to answer questions, though he knows the trade very well,” he said. “So that’s keeping him from becoming a business owner.”
Nearly 70% of Lebanon County residents speak Spanish, according to a 2017 report by the United Way of Lebanon. About 2.5% of residents, though, have limited English proficiency.
WEPA organizers are planning to host their programs at the former Northwest Elementary School. The 60,460-square-foot building at 900 Maple street was last used as a school in 2018.
The focus of redeveloping the old school has been to create living-wage jobs, said Aaron Camara, president and owner of Monarch Enterprises, which is managing the renovation. Camara, who is finalizing the purchase of the property, said efforts like WEPA will revitalize the area.
“There’s a reason why all of these warehouses and industrial facilities are going up around Lebanon. It’s cause they recognize what’s here,” he said. “There’s an untapped mine of human resources, but they are still trying to find a way to tap the mine too.”
The WEPA site is expected to be ready in September 2022, with leaders working with other organizations to provide job referral and other programs to residents. Meanwhile the organization is solidifying its non-profit status so that officials can start applying for grants and funding options.
Organizers hope to branch out to other counties.
“We definitely want the buzz to be Lebanon-centric, but our vision is to be able to expand throughout the south central (Pennsylvania) region,” Gonzalez said.
Workforce development and community education is the quickest way for communities to get out of poverty, according to Torres. Having a center that is open to everyone, with platforms that allow people to advance, will allow the community to flourish.
“There’s a lot of folks out there calling on us, asking us … to do better. Not just for themselves but for the greater good of the community,” he said.
Matthew Toth is a reporter for the Lebanon Daily News. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DAMattToth.