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26 Dec. 2011 | Comments (0)

I spend part of my Thursdays teaching math to a class of 14 prospective nursing assistants at the American Red Cross in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My course is one of several in an intensive four-month program, run jointly by the ARC and the Community Learning Center in Cambridge.

The students are a highly motivated group of legal immigrants from Brazil, Ethiopia, Haiti, Morocco, Nepal, and Somalia who are keen to join the health care labor force after they've completed the curriculum, which also includes instruction in English, basic clinical biology, patient care, and job-readiness skills. They are socially adept, quick-witted fast learners whose contributions any employer would value. Some even have professional backgrounds that far outrank the position they're now training for (one woman was an accountant, so keeping a math course stimulating for her is a challenge).

Perhaps even more important, the skills that the students are refining — and the certification they'll earn after they pass their exam — will be put to use almost immediately. And I suspect that many of these talented candidates will go on to become nurses, of whom there is a growing shortage in the United States. Given all that, the training program — funded ultimately by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (that's the U.S. federal economic stimulus plan) at a cost of roughly $5,000 per student — is the very definition of dollars well spent.

Students in programs like this represent a small percentage of the talented people who are champing at the bit to work in areas where we need them most. The waiting lists at the two community schools where I teach are very long, and the students already enrolled in classes count themselves lucky at having the opportunity to learn. But I think that we as a nation are even luckier to have this enormous pool of bright candidates who are eager to step into roles we're desperate to fill. Many U.S. cities are literally teeming with them.

Unfortunately, such people are often not on the radar of businesses and other institutions that could benefit from their brains and their energy. When we do recognize that these folks exist, we usually assess only their immediate readiness and therefore focus on the deficits (which at first glance seem bigger than they are). The reality is that with targeted instruction — in, for example, English proficiency and specific job skills like those taught in the nursing assistants program — the enormous assets they bring can be tapped and developed.

Does that mean an investment in every person will yield a quick, measurable social payoff? Of course not. Some students will take much longer than others to be brought up to speed, and a few will never quite get there. But if my experience working with a highly productive and motivated group of nursing assistant candidates is any indication, the cost-benefit ratio of the investment promises to be an impressive one.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 11/19/2009.


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