For some Haitian New Yorkers, success is in trade programs, not college


LaGuardia Community College is located in Queens. Photo by Larisa Karr.

This article is the second in a series about Haitian-Americans in New York City pursuing degrees in career and technical education (CTE), supported by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The second installment examines how Haitian-Americans are gaining greater financial mobility through CTE programs. A future installment looks at Haitian-Americans who take nighttime classes in CTE courses. 

NEW YORK — James Adolphe sits inside a restaurant in Long Island City, gesturing excitedly at the ceiling as he explains how 76-degree air circulates upwards and exits back at what he estimates to be around 72 degrees.

“I wanted to know how things work and heating, and ventilation got my attention,” said James Adolphe, a 38-year-old Flatbush resident who completed a certificate program at LaGuardia Community College (LCC) in Queens. “I learned a lot in that time; and through everything they taught me after passing the state test, I realized the job opportunities are endless.”

Adolphe, who was born in Gonaïves, completed his GED in January 2021. He then immediately decided to pursue a certificate in a field that would allow him to build up his financial resources, especially after struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The week after receiving his GED, he applied to LCC and completed the certificate program in eight months. Now, he said he finds freelance work through an app called Handy, which he said pays better than a regular 9-to-5 job. As a result of his success, he persuaded two of his Haitian friends to enroll in certificate programs at LCC as well. 

Adolphe, who also DJs under the name Jimmy Entourage, is one of a handful of Haitian-Americans in the New York City metro area pursuing two-year degrees and certificate programs in Career and Technical Education (CTE), a rapidly growing educational field throughout the country. These offerings give students the opportunity to build skills quickly while finding high-paying jobs within a matter of months instead of years after completion. 

CTE encompasses a wide-range of programs, including transportation, health science and engineering. In New York state, there are 150,883 CTE participants as of March 2022, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education. Also in March, the federal government allocated an additional $45 million in funding for CTE programs nationwide. 

Experts say short-term programs and apprenticeships are in demand because they cover fields that two-year institutions have not adapted to yet. 

Many Haitians, especially newcomers, commonly work jobs in home health care, food preparation and school buses. The median salaries for these positions range from $29,000to $37,000. For those like Adolphe looking to earn more, CTE programs are particularly appealing. 

CTE certificates like construction would increase one family member’s income to a median salary of $98,890, while air traffic controllers can take home a median salary of $129,750

                            James Adolphe received a certificate in Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC). Photo by Larisa Karr.

“We have a great deal of jobs in our city administration that we’re looking to fill and we are encouraging Haitian-Americans to apply for these jobs,” said NYC mayor Eric Adams in a video voicing his support for the city’s Haitian community. 

Experts on Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. labor force said that Haitians are inclined to pursue CTE-related fields.

“Haitian workers are more concentrated in the healthcare sector, followed by accommodation and food services,” said Valerie Lacarte, a Haitian-Canadian who researches U.S. immigrants in the workforce for the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). “Also in the STEM industry, there is a lower unemployment rate for high-skilled immigrant workers because there’s such a great need for labor.”

Dozens of community colleges within the greater New York metro area offer two-year programs in fields like computer technology and civil engineering. In addition, many offer continuing education programs with apprenticeships, offering students the chance to jump-start their careers in plumbing, healthcare tech and construction.

Community colleges focusing on CTE programs to help students learn trades 

Experts said one fundamental change that needs to happen in the way community colleges approach CTE programs is that they need to view their institutions less as a springboard for students to go on to four-year colleges, especially for those who can’t immediately afford to continue to such schools.

“Community colleges are trying to serve two masters simultaneously, because they have their academic mission but they also have their CTE mission,” said Ryan Craig, an authorwho has written about the importance of Black and brown students pursuing CTE careers for Inside Higher Ed. “You have the leadership of these community colleges who don’t prioritize the workforce mission and are not sufficiently attuned to the labor market.”

New York state funding for CTE programs through the Perkins V act fills employment gaps in multiple fields, including agriculture, business and marketing, family and consumer sciences, health occupations, technology and technical and industrial trade. 

“There’s structural issues at the program level as to how resources are allocated across programs and so often, the way community colleges are financed varies by state,” said Theresa Anderson, Principal Research Associate at The Urban Institute. “They need to create more opportunities for more diverse students and try to broaden the pool of who’s invited to be a part of the college and be successful at the college.”

Quicker programs, better financial outcomes 

For Haitian residents like Adolphe who have focused their careers in CTE, they found the programs have allowed them to build their savings in a short amount of time after struggling for years. 

Others discovered that apprenticeships offered by local community colleges would allow them to earn money while pursuing their interests. 

Fritz Uzda Davis had just returned from the military to his home in Jersey City and found himself without the salary he once relied upon.

Knowing he had to get a stable job to provide for his family of five, he enrolled in the accounting program at nearby Hudson County Community College (HCC) three times, trying to balance a full-time job while attending classes.

Now, Davis has decided to pursue a different career in mortuary sciences at Eastwick College, a trade school in Hackensack. The program, which takes two years to complete, required Davis to complete half a year of paid, on-the-job training. He said the program appealed to him because of its financial stability, as well as the paid apprenticeship program which offered him the opportunity to learn the required skills. 

“It’s guaranteed employment and I was looking for something that was safe and secure with job placement,” said Davis, 36. “I also wanted to say to my kids, ‘Look, I did all this. I still was able to accomplish this.’”

Other Haitians who previously struggled with education also found success in CTE fields.

“When I got out of high school, my grades were flat-out bad and I also didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Ralph Eduoard, a 30-year-old mechanical engineer. “Community college was huge as far as getting my confidence up in math and science and then really believing that I could pursue a degree in engineering.”

Eduoard took courses at SUNY Westchester Community College (WCC), located 30 miles north of New York City. He said it took him three-and-a-half years to complete two years worth of credits, as he was working double shifts overnight and then attending school in the morning.

After getting 60 credits necessary toward an engineering program, he transferred to the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), where he graduated in 2017.

Haitian students are also pursuing CTE careers online, which became more common after COVID-19.

Rey Henny Ciceron, a music producer and engineer, is working toward completing a two-year associate’s degree in business administration at Plaza College in Queens. He said he appreciates the accessibility of the program, as he has to structure his schedule around juggling freelance musician gigs while taking care of his two children.

“Taking up business administration will allow me to get into the administrative side of a major recording studio,” said Ciceron, a 38-year-old Valley Stream resident. “This is something I really need and I wouldn’t dream of leaving.”