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Walsh Visa review suggests program improvements

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

After much initial fanfare, the Walsh Visa program has slipped into slow motion after an intergovernmental review of its pilot phase led officials to conclude that they needed time to tighten up the operation before bringing additional participants to the United States.

One more group of visa participants will arrive in the U.S. before the agencies involved wrap up the pilot program and step back to assess how they can make improvements on the peace and reconciliation visa.

"They want to take some time to learn some of the lessons from the initial phase," said one source familiar with the review process.

"They are easing back until they have sorted out the quality control," the source said.

Irish, British and U.S. officials met over the last three days for a review of the program aimed at ironing out recent difficulties. The review came amid criticisms from some participants about their low-level jobs and the lack of assistance in the United States.

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One official involved in the program’s implementation at Logicon, the company contracted by the U.S. State Department to find work for the visa holders, has already been reassigned.

Initiated two months ago, the Walsh peace and reconciliation visa aims to provide a clear career path and job training in the United States for long-term unemployed from Northern Ireland and the Border counties.

A pilot stage for the program has brought nearly 400 participants already to work in Washington and Colorado. Logicon’s initial contract for the Walsh visa ends in September.

But a number of the 15 percent who left or had been dismissed from the program said they were dissatisfied with the menial work, the lack of a career path and the low level of training.

One source close to the review said some of the participants had little idea of what job they would be doing before they arrived and there was genuine surprise, and even shock, at the cultural differences in the U.S.

Among the visa review suggestions:

€ Training agencies in Northern Ireland and the Republic would extend their training from six weeks to eight to better prepare participants for life in the U.S.

€ Training will focus on clearly explaining the jobs visa holders will do.

€ Once in America, participants will also be provided with facilities, such as telephones in their homes and possibly a website, to allow them to communicate more easily with each other.

€ Officials hope that a better support network will assuage homesickness and the unfamiliarity of their new environment.

€ Both in the U.S. and at home, participants will be better prepared for American employers’ expectations and the U.S. work ethic.

€ A general tightening of all U.S., Irish and Northern Ireland aspects of the program.

€ A focus on the employment opportunities in the U.S. market, and perhaps a loosening of how participants are employed and move between jobs.

Irish, British and American officials said while the review had pointed out areas that would be improved, Logicon and the employers were pleased with most of the visa holders and their attitude to work.

All agencies believe an 85 percent success rate is more than acceptable for such a complex, back-to-work program.

Speaking to the Irish Echo, Rep. James Walsh who pushed the visa legislation through Congress, said the program was still in its early stages, but he hoped it would fulfill its aims.

"We are taking people, flying them 3,000 miles, plugging them into a job and a different culture," he said. "There are going to be bumps along the road. They are working on these things and they are getting better."

But Walsh expressed concern that the conflict-resolution part of the program had not been implemented.

While the governments seemed focused on the legislation’s push for economic regeneration in Northern Ireland through job skills, Walsh said he had believed the conflict-resolution segment would start almost immediately.

"I had envisioned that as part and parcel of the transition to the new jobs," he said. "That part is a little disappointing."

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