UTA celebrates 10 graduates of its Bilingual Bridges English As Second Language pilot program

May 17, 2024
The pilot is used as recruiting tool for individuals who are interested in becoming bus operators but may lack mastery of the English language.

The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) hosted a ceremony on May 15 to celebrate the 10 graduates of its Bilingual Bridges English As Second Language (ESL) pilot program. The program exposed students, who were paid during the program, to the role of a bus operator.  After graduating, students who choose to will move into UTA’s bus operations training. 

In UTA’s ESL course, students do not only learn to read, write and speak English, but they also learn bus operator skills and work toward earning their commercial driver licenses. 

UTA Training Specialist Angelica Suaste teaches the students how to deal with riders and navigate their way through many of the scenarios they may face someday on the numerous routes in UTA’s system, stretching from Provo to Ogden, Park City to Tooele. 

“Helping immigrants is something I hold close to my heart,” said Suaste. “I come from an immigrant family and I remember how much my family struggled due to the language barrier. If I can help these people learn English, I can help them have the same opportunity as everyone else and build a better life for themselves. At the same time, this program is also about helping families, the company and the community.” 

The Bilingual Bridges ESL pilot program has been a partnership between the Utah State Board of Education, Granite School District and UTA.  UTA’s pilot program differs from a traditional ESL program, as UTA has incorporated the principles of an ESL program with a focus on preparing participants to work at UTA. 

UTA says the seeds for the pilot program were planted during the COVID-19 pandemic when many bus operators retired and the labor market became extremely tight, contributing to a severe driver shortage. Necessity eventually led to innovation in UTA’s search for new operators. The agency realized it could access an untapped pool of talent by offering recruits the chance to learn English, build a new career and earn a living with benefits. 

The pilot program serves multiple purposes.  The first is a recruiting tool for individuals who are interested in becoming bus operators but may lack mastery of the English language. The second is UTA’s desire to attract a workforce that reflects this region’s demographics.  

“I’ve focused my career on providing opportunities that level the playing field for learners, knowing that all people have talent and potential,” said ESL Instructor Alex Smith, who has years of experience teaching ESL and launching similar programs. “Too often, they lack opportunity. I love the challenge because it is about helping individuals who have left jobs, educations and career ladders in other countries reach their potential here, in a new land with a new language.  I love the idea that helping people land good careers that will help them and their children as citizens. I love working with high-capacity people and helping them show what they can contribute. I am supremely confident that they will repay the investment UTA is making in them many times over in their service to the community.” 

Through the pilot program, UTA has been able to recruit to a wider audience. The agency says that although its first priority is to increase its bus operator recruitment pool, it has had success with several program participants accepting positions in maintenance.  

The majority of UTA’s recruitment has been largely focused on individuals enrolled in Granite Peaks ELA program.  UTA’s Bilingual Bridges pilot program was available to individuals who speak any language. UTA saw a higher percentage of participants coming from Spanish speaking countries but there are participants who have come from all over the world.  The program was only open to lawfully present immigrants and all applicants were required to have a valid Class D driver’s license.  

“There is a lot of shame for people struggling to learn English with limited opportunities so I am proud when people gain confidence to lead and serve in a new language, escaping the shame they feel.  I will be most proud of helping hardworking individuals land life-altering career opportunities and I will be proud of the way these multilingual immigrants and refugees enrich and connect our diverse community through their work as the face of UTA,” Smith said. 

UTA will be evaluating the pilot program to decide how to best move forward.