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US work programme: Tough lesson for tertiary students

Published:Sunday | October 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Tough lesson for tertiary students - Photo by Norman Grindley/ Chief Photographer

Ryon Jones, Staff Reporter

Several Jamaican students rushing to the United States on the popular summer work and travel cultural exchange programme are returning home with horror stories, but the local recruiting agencies contend that these students left the island believing that they were embarking on a moneymaking opportunity.

"The work and travel programme, even though it has financial gains to it, is not entirely on the basis of obtaining a lot of money going overseas to work," explained Poye Robinson, CEO of International Travel and Cultural Exchange, an agency which has been around for three years.

"The main purpose of the programme, and why it was initiated by the US State Department in 1981, is to provide an opportunity where persons from specific countries around the world can learn the cultures found within the US," said Robinson.

"These students can make friends with persons from around the world, develop their own goals, gain the requisite experience and just gain knowledge on the basis of working with other persons in different environments. Gaining financially is a benefit but it is not the main purpose of the programme," added Robinson.

But one parent whose child recently went on the programme last week insisted that the students would not struggle to find the more than $200,000 it costs to go to the US if they did not harbour hopes of some financial returns.

Students disillusioned

According to the parent, Maurice Christie, many of the students are left disillusioned when their expectations are not realised.

"Deep down, people are going because they want to earn something, the rich is not going to do it. The goal of making this US dollar is not totally achievable," said Christie.

"And when they work a second job, they do not have the documentation and it could affect them if somebody decides to tell on them, as they are getting paid under the table," added Christie, whose 20-year-old son went through Student Work and Travel (SWAT) to Pennsylvania to work at a restaurant during the past summer.

The programme, which normally runs for 14 weeks, attracts a package cost which varies, depending on the agency; and this covers different fees.

"My programme fee for the 2015 season - which we start recruiting now, but the season is next year - is US$1,340 (just over J$150,000). That fee covers health insurance, their work permit, government fees (such as job placement and job search fees) and the administrative cost for both the local and international agencies. The only thing my programme does not cover is the embassy fees and their airfare," shared Robinson.

Approximately 3,500 students went on the programme in 2013 with most of the agencies reporting an increase in numbers for this past summer.

Paul Thomas, CEO of International Recruiting Staffing Solutions (IRSS), sought to set the record straight on the financial rewards of the programme.

"These jobs that we send people to are jobs that American people don't want, and they are in areas where there is not much local population. So we need to understand that the only reason they are still offering to hire our college students in a recession is that they are jobs that Americans don't really want," said Thomas.

According to Robinson, extra long work hours in less-than-favourable conditions are some of the reasons that the only takers are students from developing countries, including Jamaica. Robinson alleged that persons from other developing countries pay significantly more than Jamaicans. "As much as US$7,000 ... and we as Jamaicans pay between US$1,300 and US$1,400."

Not worth it

But for students like 21-year-old Peta-Gay Millwood, who worked at an amusement park as a rides operator, the lower cost was still not worth it.

"The hours were super long and the sun was really hot, but it was fun meeting new people and trying new stuff. But I wouldn't go back, as it was just a one-time thing. I just wanted to see what it was like. I worked 12 to 16 hours a day. It was dreadful," said Millwood, even as she admitted that there were some positive moments.

"At one point on our ride, we had like five Jamaicans there, and there was this white person and he was like, 'OK, I feel like the plantation owner'," alleged Millwood.

Robinson admitted that there have been reports of unfavourable treatment meted out to some of the Jamaican students who travel on the summer programme.

"I do understand that students go over there (US) and not in all cases it will work out for the best; it depends on what you want from the programme. You have employers up there who are really mischievous and they are disgusting when it comes to treating students fairly. You have some persons who are narrow-minded as it relates to even racism," shared Robinson.

For Millwood, the Jamaican students should be careful in the US and should not take risks, including going to parties alone.

Recently, The Sunday Gleaner was told of one Jamaican student who was allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted at a party she attended towards the end of her work experience. That case is now being investigated by police in the US even as the girl remains in hospital there, having suffered a nervous breakdown.

However, Staci-Ann Virtue, a third-year culinary student at the University of Technology, was selected for the programme this past summer and returned home after what she describes as a mostly positive picture.

A very good experience

"It was a very good professional experience, considering that's the field I am studying. I was able to be an active part of the food-service establishment. I was able to be a part of the cooking staff in an รก la carte restaurant, as well as in a fast-food restaurant. It broadened my concepts and made me understand more of what I was taught in theory," shared Virtue.

"The staff was very professional, and considering I was upstate New York, which had very few African Americans there, I was pleasantly surprised as, though I wasn't looking for it, I was expecting to experience racism on some level. But the staff I worked with was very courteous and professional and I was treated equally with other staff members, even the natives."

But Virtue pointed to the high price to rent a place to stay as one of the downsides.

"I wouldn't go back because of rental cost. I would prefer to live somewhere where I didn't have to pay rent. So if I was to go back, I would do self-placement, which is where family members or friends find a job for you and you arrange your housing yourself, but I would still go through an agency to continue my social security and to receive a work permit," said Virtue.

Thomas of IRSS admits that housing can significantly cut into students' earnings.

"The job is not so much the problem, the challenge we have been having is housing. The children are treated as young adults, so they go and they have to pay their rent, and typically rent ranges between US$65 and as high as US$125 per week and that is salary deducted. So if they are getting a minimum wage of US$8 an hour in a 40-hour work week (US$320 per week) and pay at the upper end US$125 (for rent) and after that they have to buy food; they really don't get much net pay," said Thomas.

But even with these costs, some students can still manage to save enough to pay their tuition come September.

According to Thomas, some students end up in the red because they have their priorities mixed up. He said some participants spend money on items such as smartphones and computers, which eat into their earnings. "The result being many cry foul when they feel they have realised no returns on their investment."