Caribbean immigrants flocking to career schools for jobs in health careMany from Caribbean seek jobs in health care
By Georgia East
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 23, 2009
Nurses' aides, medical assistants, surgical technicians — Caribbean immigrants are a fast-growing force in South Florida health care.
Technical schools are noticing.
In Lauderhill and Lauderdale Lakes, two Broward cities with a high concentration of Caribbean immigrants, technical schools offering specialties in health care are multiplying. Some schools say the community grew around them, but newer schools say they were drawn to the area by the concentration of potential students.
"We build our schools through referrals," said Bernadette Edwards, senior admissions representative at The American Institute School of Health Careers in Lauderdale Lakes. "We're not just selling a program, we're selling a dream."
The school operates out of a few storefronts in a strip plaza, between a wig shop and a Sav-A-Lot supermarket. There are at least three more career schools within a one-mile radius. More than 60 percent of the 185 students are of Caribbean ancestry. The scene is similar a few blocks west at MedVance Institute, another health school, where more than 50 percent of the students are from the Caribbean.
More than half the long-term care health workers who belong to the Service Employees International Union in Florida are either Haitian or West Indian, the union reports. A report of some census data analyzed by the AARP showed that there were six times as many immigrant nurses working in long-term care in 2003 as there were in 1980.
Home health aides, medical assistants and registered nurses are some of the health fields with the heaviest concentration of immigrants, according to a 2006 Migration Policy Institute Study that looked at job trends in the immigrant community. About 13 percent of the immigrants who moved here since 2000 are in health, according to the study.
"It has been an interesting demographic transformation," said Monica Russo, president of the Florida State Council of the Service Employees International Union, who said the shift has taken place over the past few decades. "The newer folks are from Haiti and Jamaica and all across the West Indies."
Coral Springs resident Evet Armstrong, 48, a native of Belize, said she had always wanted to pursue a career in nursing, but she put it off to have a family and got sidetracked.
Her hope is that when she graduates from the School of Health Careers she can get one good job, she said, rather than working at several low-paying jobs.
At MedVance, Michael Hayle, 48, a father of four, is studying to be a surgical technician. Hayle, who was born in Jamaica, worked for years in Georgia as a janitor in a health care facility. He had a hard time finding a similar job when he relocated to South Florida last year and decided to try something new.
"My only regret is that I didn't start sooner," Hayle said.
Some Caribbean immigrants say it's common to grow up in households where loved ones cared for elders. And in some of their homelands, nurses are held in such high esteem that it's a coveted career choice.
"I still remember as a child seeing the nurses in Jamaica in their white uniforms and their white shoes. They just looked so neat. They fascinated me," recalled Marsha Garwood of Miami Gardens, a student at the School of Health Careers.
The diversity of the health care workers can be a benefit in a region as ethnically diverse as South Florida. But cultural misunderstandings can cause problems as well.
"Certain cultural norms may be valued in one culture and misunderstood in another," Russo said. "This happens a lot in nursing homes, where you will have a resident who mistakes firmness for berating."
Instructor Belinda Roy, born in Haiti, often gives her students insight on how to get through some of the prickly cultural dilemmas. She tells them their multilanguage skills are an asset and shows them how to use their life experiences to connect with patients.
"We let them know their cultural mix brings something special," Roy said.
For some, the health schools are just the start.
Pauline Bremmer just finished a 15-month surgical technician program, along with her 18-year-old son Jerome. Both graduated from MedVance with 4.0 grade point averages.
The teenager's goal is to eventually become a surgeon.
"This is just the beginning," he said. "From when I was small, I've always wanted to work in the medical field."
Georgia East can be reached at geast@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4629.
Copyright © 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel