Government Shutdown 101: What Does It Mean for Migrants and Refugees?

It’s common knowledge that the federal government shut down at midnight September 30.  But now many of us are now wondering what the shutdown means for migrants and refugees.  Read more in this re-post from LIRS President Linda Hartke’s blog.

Also, as most of you probably  know already, refugee arrivals will be frozen until October 21, except for a few extreme medical cases.  Please let Higher know at if you have additional information, questions or experience with maintaining refugee employment services in light of the shut down.



Looking Back on 2013

As the new fiscal year begins, I wanted to share three trends from the field that Higher took note of in 2013.  All three show creativity and innovation in addressing some of the common challenges we all face in supporting refugees’ entry into the workforce.  Here are the top three:

1.  Expanded employer partners — more local refugee employment offices are marketing their services to a broader array of companies.  With more diverse caseloads and more competition for available jobs, refugee employment professionals are networking and finding entry-level opportunities in new industries.

2.  Short-term skills training — new training models in food service, hospitality and sewing indicate progress in designing skills training that fits into the short time frame available during the initial resettlement period.  By including employers in the design of these training programs, refugees who complete a short-term training are finding it easier to get a job that uses their new skills.

3.  Post-placement support — front-line employment specialists are offering additional follow-up to companies who hire their clients.  They are  leveraging the challenges that come with on boarding new staff to their advantage by offering a free interpreter for any kind of safety training require and being willing to visit an employer after hours.  These steps are reported by front-line staff to increase the likelihood that the employer will call the local refugee employment office first when they have openings to fill.

Please contact us if you would like to hear more details or connect to someone in the field who is currently working on one of these ideas.

Interview: The Employer Perspective on Interviewing

Harry photoRecently, Higher interviewed Harry Brigham, former owner of three Subway restaurants in Baltimore, Maryland.  We are including this conversation here to provide both employment staff and job seekers with insights and tips from perhaps the most important perspective in the interview process – the decision-maker!

Higher:  Before we start into the hard questions, can you tell our readers a little bit about your background to help put your advice into context?

Harry: I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts where I attended Tuft’s University.  After graduation, I was commissioned a Naval Officer and served as a Lieutenant on a ship out of Charleston, SC for four years.  I then received my Masters in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Currently, I am an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and operations consultant who recently owned three high-volume subway restaurants for approximately seven years.  These stores, located in Baltimore City, operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with an average of 15 -18 full and part time employees per location.  Through several different initiatives including the introduction of refugees into the employee team, the restaurants enjoyed on average a 40-50% increase in sales over my period of ownership.  I hired roughly 70 refugees over that period.

Higher:  What first motivated you to begin hiring refugees and what happened to turn you into such a strong supporter of refugee workplace integration?

Harry:  I was having great difficulty in sourcing quality staff.  The restaurants were experiencing high turnover, poor attendance reliability, lack of commitment to the workplace, poor customer service, dishonesty and workplace theft, on-site drama manifesting in workplace conflict between employees, and drama in employee home life that affected their work performance and attendance. 

As a result, the stores were under-performing, a source of many customer complaints and exhausting to own and manage.  Good employees found the workplace to be stressful and inequitable and would leave.  Due to the high employee turnover, we found ourselves in a mode of scrambling to find individuals to fill positions.

One day, I was voicing these concerns to a parent of one of my children’s classmates and he suggested I contact the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) office in Baltimore and explore hiring refugees. 

At that point, everything started to change…

Higher:  Could you tell us a bit of history about how your hiring practices and philosophy changed over time?

Harry:  By introducing refugees to the workforce, the store turnover was dramatically reduced.  Therefore, we had the luxury of more time to fill openings.

We continued to receive applications at the stores from walk in candidates and I would also contact LIRS or IRC employment advocates when I had an opening.   I would strive to maintain a 50/50 mix of refugee and non-refugee staff.  It was still helpful to have non-refugee staff in the workforce who could better read the nuances of a customer interaction if there was a complaint or if a customer was trying to take advantage of the refugee.

Higher:  How did you use candidate interviews to help you decide whom to hire?

Harry:  As I developed a relationship with the local refugee employment advocates, they grew to understand the requirements of the positions within the store.  Therefore, they were able to identify candidates that could be the best fit with the opportunity and escort that individual to an interview with me.  Within the interview itself, I looked for the following:

English skills at a sufficient level to be able to fill the job description of the opening – This is a critical evaluation of the employment advocate.  Employers have limited time and to bring an unqualified candidate to an interview erodes trust.

Eye contact and willingness to attempt an active discussion – I recognize that this can be terrifying for someone depending on where they come from but conversation has to occur for the interviewer to know whom they are considering to hire.

Willingness to talk about their migration journey – This is about what the refugee used to do in their home country, when they came to the US, who in their family came with them, how long have they been here, where do they live, etc.  Refugees need to practice this story in English and hopefully have an opportunity to tell it in the interview in order to turn the perception from an anonymous foreign person that needs a job to a new American who is assimilating and ready for the next step of employment.

Attitude and Energy – The ability to go past ‘I need a job’ and convey to the interviewer “Why I would be a great employee.”   For example, “In my home country, I did X and Y for work and it required X and Y skills or work habits and those are characteristics that I can bring to your workplace.”

Employers are looking for productive employees that will move quickly to accomplish tasks.  Since the refugee does not have work history in the US nor job references, this energy is critical.

Contact information – Phone number and email address that are accessed regularly by the refugee.  The employer does not want to have to contact the employment advocate to circle back to a candidate following an interview. The employer does not want to hear that the client is in the process of getting a phone

Higher:  How can refugees with little English language skills best show their value in an interview?

Harry:  Refugees with limited English skills need to do the following:

  1. Try as hard as possible to use the English they do know and to have a two-way conversation with the interviewer.
  2. It is OK to say ‘I don’t understand, can you say that again and speak more slowly?’  That is better than simply smiling and nodding and not understanding.  It is unsettling for the interviewer when he or she senses the employee simply has no idea what is being asked and that does not bode well for workplace training programs.  Two people smiling at one another in silent interview, is not a successful interview.

Also, it’s important for the employment advocate bring a translator to the job interview when necessary to facilitate the conversation and ensure the candidate understands expectations.  The job itself (warehousing for example) may not require significant English skills, however, the interview itself must be a productive conversation and a translator can make the difference while allowing all participants to feel that their points were made. 

Higher:  You’re a valuable resource for the network of employment professionals who are passionate about helping refugees but often struggle to convey that passion AND sell employers on considering refugees for job openings.  What advice can you give about crafting an effective pitch to prospective employers?

Harry:  Here’s my “top ten” list:

  1. Be professionally dressed whenever coming in to meet with the employer.
  2. Research the company ahead of time.
  3. Have an outstanding piece of collateral to hand to employers that anticipates and addresses the 10 to 15 questions any employer is likely to ask.
  4. Emphasize that the refugees are legal immigrants to the US that have been interviewed and approved by our US State Department.  They will have a social security number and pay taxes.  When illegal immigration is such a sensitive issue in the US, it is an exciting opportunity for an employer to hire legally compliant refugees.
  5. Convey hiring refugees is a very American thing to do.  The United States is a melting pot of cultures from around the work.  Other than Native American, none of us are originally from here.  It always has been a characteristic that makes our country so diverse and strong.
  6. Express that refugees have no roots in this country and they want to be part of something and to be a loyal team member.  Let that ‘something’ be your workplace.
  7. Highlight the real tax savings available and that the employment advocate can educate the employer about those savings.
  8. Be specific about how you will help the employee have a successful onboarding experience.  Talk about your accessibility for the employer – that you have your phone with you 24/7 and will take a call at anytime to help address any situation that may come up.
  9. Speak about workplace diversity.  Refugees are not threatening to existing employees; instead they are an interesting new element.
  10. Emphasize the overall strengths that most refugees share by nature of their migration experience.  That is a hard thing to do and a company can only benefit from the addition of that resilience and determination.

Higher: Thank you for your thoughts, Harry.  I think front-line refugee employment staff will really appreciate your honesty and suggestions!

5 Creative Ways to Help Clients Master Job Interview Skills

It’s easy to get bored with a topic you repeat so many times, like teaching newly arriving refugees about interview skills for the U.S. workplace.  However, it is an important topic for every client and there’s always room to improve (this applies to everyone, not just refugees).  Clients get bored with it too.  Here are some ideas you can consider to keep it fresh.

  1. Engage Volunteers:  You might not always be able to spend the time that’s needed on individual interview practice with each client.  Interview practice is a fun and stand-alone task that is perfect for volunteers.
    1. Add Quick Practice Into Job Readiness Class:  As basic interview concepts are being presented, include a few rounds of individual practice.  Have everyone stand up one by one, shake hands with you and introduce themselves.  You can take the same approach to answering and asking common interview questions.  For example, begin every client meeting with a handshake and greeting.
    2. Deepen Relationships with Key Employers:  Offer employer contacts the chance to get more involved.  Schedule a convenient time for employers and clients to conduct a few mock interviews.  Employers often express how much they enjoy these kinds of experiences.  And engaging them more will strengthen the relationship for future hires. Clients will benefit, too!
    3. Assign “Homework” for the Next Scheduled Appointment:  Sometimes clients need more time to think of answers or feel ready to express their thoughts in English.  Give them specific interview questions and encourage them to practice their answers before the next appointment.  This also helps encourage individual responsibility for their own successful job search.
    4. Rethink On-line Screening Questionnaires:  Wait a second – don’t tune out.  Everyone hates them, but screening questionnaires (like at Walmart and Office Depot) can be good sources of questions you can use in interview practice. In fact, they are really the same as an on-line job interview and are becoming increasingly common in today’s job market.   If a client aspires to a customer service job and can’t navigate an online screening questionnaire, they might not be ready for that kind of job.

ACA (ObamaCare): More Guidance and Resources

AfACA Actter Higher’s initial post acknowledging the stress we’re all feeling around ACA, we found out more.  Thanks to Tina Fang, formerly with RHTAC, for sharing her wealth of knowledge about ACA.

Additional Resources

These new finds, and the resources provided in a previous post, would also be great to pass along to employers.  They could then provide them to all of their employees – including the clients you’ve placed in their job openings.  You could send a quick email to your key employer contacts with links from Higher’s ACA posts.  Great customer service for both of your key customers – clients and employers.

  • ORR has a whole office dedicated to Refugee Health.  It’s a great resource.  They will very soon announce the release of an introductory video in six refugee languages that explains basics about health insurance and ACA.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation continues to play a leadership role in providing information and analysis related to ACA.  Among other resources, they offer an interactive map with updates from all 50 States and a great animated overview of ACA targeting consumers in English and Spanish.

Where to Start?

States decide whether or not to expand Medicaid as part of expanded coverage access.  They also decide how healthcare coverage will be provided in their State.  They can develop a State market place, work jointly with the national market place or rely solely on the national option.  No matter how those two components take shape, each State will be required to have at least 2 designated “navigator” organizations to assist with enrollment.  It will look different in every State, as will the funding source for that resource.

Answering these three questions for your State is a good place to start exploring how you will help refugees navigate all of the changes and options:


10 Job Possibilites for Low Skilled Clients

It’s always a struggle to help clients with little obvious marketable experience and very low English language skills find their first job.  Volunteering, training or part-time work can be helpful, but the majority of these clients also comeWant Ads from the most vulnerablefamilies, so income without delay is critical.  Here are 10 potential jobs that have worked for others in the network.  If you don’t have employer contacts in these sectors, start building relationships now.

  1. Recycling – sorting single streams, electronic component break-down or simple processing into reusable materials could be contractor or government jobs.   
  2. Road- or Curb- side Trash Pick-up – it’s hot work, but road crews often leave from central locations and can be full time seasonal work for people who don’t want to work indoors
  3. Goodwill Sheltered Employment – Opportunities could include retail stores, donation sorting and vocational training.  Lack of English is often a qualifying barrier.
  4. Food Processing – think beyond meat packing to the booming locavore, organic and artisanal sectors, as well as frozen food.  Look at grocery store suppliers, too.
  5. Farming/gardening/landscaping – look into arboretums, urban farms, corporate campuses, apartment complexes, nurseries, garden stores and lawn care services
  6. General labor with a small contractor – larger companies may have inflexible safety and security parameters, but small contractors or independent professionals may be willing to give clients a chance.
  7. Vehicle detailing – car washes, rental car agencies, other businesses with commercial fleets – like Greyhound or school districts and contract detailing services.
  8. Home Healthcare for Relatives – in some cases, SSDI benefits can include payment for in-home care provided by a family member. Find out more from resettlement colleagues or other social work professionals.
  9. Housekeeping – many clients are afraid of this type of work, but hotels are key employers in many places. Nursing homes, office cleaning contractors or anywhere with public space could also be options for this type of work.
  10. Dishwasher Hotels, convention service contractors, chain restaurants and nursing homes can all be great possibilities.  Some fast food chains have separate positions with no customer contact, which can also be good options.

Advice from a Career in Workforce Development

Harry Crawford retires as Employment Program Manager at Caritas of Austin today.  In his honor, we are reposting this summary of two pieces of his advice.  Harry Crawford

” I wanted to introduce you to Harry Crawford.  he’s the Employment Program Manager at Caritas of Austin – my boss.  He has more than 25 years of experience in workforce development. Lots of times in meetings with outside agencies, I  have to laugh because everyone ends up taking notes while Harry explains something we all need to understand.  Two pieces of his wisdom are counter-intuitive, but they always guide us through difficult aspects of working with clients, so I wanted to share them with you.

Some Clients Have to Hit the Wall: Sometimes, no mater what you do, clients have a hard time reconciling themselves to taking the first available, entry level job.  Sometimes we call it a survival or starter job.  When we’re feeling stress and worry about their family’s financial stability, Harry reminds us that some clients have to hit the wall before they can internalize the need to start in a job that they may feel is beneath them.  When they run out of options and money, they are forced to accept the realities of US work culture and that’s the best thing for them in the long term.

Finding a Job is a Numbers Game: We emphasize the importance of taking responsibility for their own success from our initial client intakes throughout all of our workshops and one-on-one coaching.  We try not to put more effort into a job search than the clients are giving themselves.  A lot of them get really frustrated by applying for lots of jobs and never even getting a response.  It builds their skills and, eventually, if they apply enough places, someone will call and they’ll find a job. ”


Stressed about ObamaCare (ACA)?

Piggy bank, dollar and stethoscopeWe’ve heard a lot of you express anxiety about what the Affordable Coverage Act (ACA), also known as ObamaCare, will mean for refugees and how to adjust the information and services you offer accordingly.

Addressing family wellness is a huge part of what case managers do for our clients.  Employment professionals need to be aware of those issues and how to address them as barriers to employment.  Most clients no longer receive intensive post-arrival case management by the time their eight month Medicaid eligibility expires and they are eligible for employer-provided health insurance benefits.

No matter how much you explain and help clients navigate our complex system, it remains bewildering.  Even if ACA offers improved coverage for our clients, learning about it and then helping refugees understand and access those benefits seems overwhelming.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and technical assistance provider RefugeeHealth Technical Assistance Center (RHTAC) have already thought about that.  Resources – including translated materials in several refugee languages – are already available to help you understand and navigate the new system, with more to come.  These great resources will help ease the stress now. We’ll point you to additional resources and provide more information as it becomes available.

Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) provides an overview of ACA, what it means for refugees and links to other related sites.  They also provide a downloadable Fact Sheet that will be useful when advocating for healthcare access rights (i.e. interpretation) with medical service providers or other agencies.

RefugeeHealth Technical Assistance Center (RHTAC) provides a straightforward explanation of ACA and its implications for refugee health care access.  At this site, you can also find downloadable Fact Sheets translated into Arabic, Burmese and Nepali.

Health Insurance Marketplace , the official government site to access ACA benefits, packs alot of information into their site.  The page I found most helpful offers resources in several languages, including Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese and Russian. A brief downloadable statement of the right to get information about ACA in your native language includes the 1-800 number to call for language access.  The statement is translated into several languages, including Amharic, Arabic, French, Hindi and Persian.

Employer Outreach Brochures 101

Brochure PhotoNo matter how your agency is structured or how you handle job development, everyone needs an effective marketing brochure.  A leave-behind that summarized your services and reaches out to potential employers is a basic that can be intimidating to develop.  Here are ideas, steps and examples to make it not so scary.

What you put together doesn’t have to be produced by an expensive consultant.  (Huh, as if, right?)   In fact, some  non-profit Directors of Communication or Development caution that something too glossy can make it look like you don’t need the help or that you might be wasting resources.  Noone wants to leave that impression, which is rarely true in our field, anyway.

Who Should Develop Your Marketing Piece? 

If you’re lucky enough to have access to your development or communications team, they could be very helpful.  You might be able to tap into intern or volunteer talent.  There’s no reason why you can’t do it yourself.  You could pass a draft around the office for feedback.  If you have a good relationship with an employer, you could ask them to review a final draft, as well.

What Information Should You Include?

Higher has recently collected three good examples that are available for you to download on our website.   They come from different sources and were intended for use by one or more agencies.  All of them are effective examples with lots of good ideas you can use as models for your own brochure.  Thanks to Volag USCRI, Lutheran Services Carolinas and Caritas of Austin, TX for letting us share their great examples.

Don’t worry or deliberate too much. Just get started.   Identify the information you want to include.  Look for pictures and graphics you can use.  Work with the data you have available already.  It’s easier than you think.  Even if you already have a brochure, you could improve or update it with fresh photos, more recent data or a new success story.

Here are some basic tips to keep in mind:

  • Use business vs nonprofit language:  Be succinct.  Direct.  Brief.  Speak their language.
  • What’s in it for them?:  That’s the lead in – not the plight of refugees or the services we’re so passionate about.  Think Free, Pre-screened, work authorized, job retention, support, easy, interpretation.
  • Use numbers and statistics:  Provide concrete and quantifiable information you have or can pull together from existing donor reports or performance data.  Consider job retention rate.  Pie chart of industries where refugees area already working.  Number of employees placed or number of employers who hired them.
  • “Join the Club”:   No risk in jumping on the band wagon.  Give them a list of area employers who already hire.  Don’t leave out national names or the competition in an industry you want to target.  Include a tesimonial quote from a supportive employer, preferably someone influential and clearly in a leadership role.
  • Give it visual punch:  Graphics.  White space.  Pictures of refugees at work.  A success story from a refugee who has moved up, won an award or is also an employer.
  • Remember the 5 second rule:  Hiring managers/employers are busy.  They make a decision to consider your pitch in just five seconds.  If they can’t immediately see what you’re asking and why they should listen, they won’t.  Wordy, cumbersome brochures may just go into the circular file.
  • Don’t forget to provide contact information:  Be sure they can find you.  Staple a business card.  Place contact info prominently.  Consider creating a dedicated email address that won’t be affected by staff turnover.
  • Spread it around:  Leave it everywhere you go.  Put it on coffee shop bulletin boards.  Do an electronic version so you can attach it to emails.  Load it on your website.  Always have some with you.

Friday Feature: The Refugee Experience in YA and Children’s Literature

Chachaji's Cup Refugee Children's LiteratureThere has been an explosion of young adult (YA) fiction in recent years, much of it also popular with adult readers.  A friend of mine who is a children’s librarian has given me some great childrens and YA books over the years.  When I asked her for ideas for a Friday Feature, Lucinda the librarian shot back a quick email response with this great list of picture and chapter books about the refugee experience through the eyes of young refugees published by The University of Arizona College of Education.

I like that many of the selections talk about refugees who resettled in other countries, as well as the US.  The one in the picture, Chachaji’s Cup,  features refugees from the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.  Some of them focus on life in refugee camps or on the run.  Others show life for refugees in Australia and the UK.  They definitely include all  of the diverse experiences and cultures we work with on a daily basis.

Employment professionals don’t often have much direct interaction with children since they aren’t entering the workforce.  But these books address all kinds of issues we do encounter every day – generation gaps, memories of home, overcoming trauma, feeling isolated.  We all see how refugee children become the bridge for their families to begin to engage in school and other community resources.  Maybe citizen children can also become the conduits for deepening community awareness among the adults in their lives?  Employers, co-workers or other community allies for our employment work are also parents.


(Every Friday we highlight one entertainment option related to our clients or some aspect of our work to help you celebrate the weekend and possibly recommend to employers and other community supporters in the following week.)