Creative, Participatory Employment Plans that Work

fish-copyA guest blog post by Cassie Smith, former Employment Specialist for Caritas of Austin, TX

Refugee employment programs often require clients to create an employment plan for short-term and long-term success. Being newly exposed to American culture and the local job market, clients often find themselves bewildered by the process.

When Cassie Smith was an Employment Specialist at Caritas of Austin in Texas, she noticed that clients fell into two categories: those with no career aspirations and those with unrealistic expectations.In an effort to help both types of clients understand and buy in to the goals set in the employment plan, Cassie developed a tool to help clients map their way to success.

Continue reading below to hear Cassie explain the strategy she developed.

Moving Beyond Survival Mode

First, I worked with clients who had no expectations about possible careers in the United States. Their focus had been about survival for so long that they did not have dreams of doing a job that was interesting or even one where they could prosper. Unlike Americans who are asked from a young age about what they want to be when they grow up, these clients simply had no exposure or did not dare to think about what could be.

Developing Attainable Goals

I also had clients whose expectations were blown out of proportion by ideas of the United States as the land milk and honey—a place where they could become wealthy by trading in on their education from their home countries.

These individuals often tried to fast forward their employment plan by applying for jobs that were out of reach because of the lack of language skills, professional experience in the United States, or lack of the necessary certifications, licensures, and degrees. These clients’ focus was often so out of touch with their economic reality that they were passing up money-making survival jobs in order to pursue unattainable goals.

Both types of clients lacked basic knowledge about the steps to achieve employment success in the context of U.S. work culture. I needed a way to talk about the process of getting a survival job, keeping it (the most difficult part), and achieving long-term employment in a field that they might enjoy.

Given that my clients ranged in age, gender, experience, language skills, literacy and education, I also needed a format that could address any number of barriers and skill sets.

I decided on a tailored visual and collaborative method as a way to teach clients about the employment process to create a unique plan who them their own possibilities.

The Employment House:  A Step by Step Process You Can Replicate

I quickly thought of the idea of a house as a model for the plan. The image of a house was one all of my clients could relate to and it had all of the right elements for demonstrating the whys and wherefores of the steps in the process and how to overcome possible obstacles.

I would typically build the house step by step with clients in their second appointment. I liked to do this in conjunction with completing their budget together to demonstrate the urgency of obtaining employment. I used markers and a blank piece of paper as seen in the images below to draw the house in real time, taking clients through the process both visually and verbally.

House one

The Foundation

The Foundation

1. Ask your clients the following questions: “Have you ever built a house before?” and “If you were going to build a house would you start with the roof?” It’s normal to get a few laughs during this stage—this is good as it breaks the ice. Most will answer” “No, you would start building a house with the foundation.”

2. Explain to your clients that you need to do the same thing with your employment plan. The foundation of their career will be the foundational courses provided by your agency or a partner organization (job readiness, ESL or cultural orientation).

3. Finally, it is important to ensure your clients understand and obtain the proper documentation to work in the United States. This documentation needed for the I-9 form will be the floor to the employment house.

The Base: Walls, Windows and Doors
house middle

Walls, Windows and Doors

4. The next step in building the house is to install walls, windows, and door that make the body of the house. Ask clients if they know the process of applying to a job. Depending on their answer, either affirm them, or, explain the stages in the next steps.

5. The window to the house is the resume because it allows us to see inside the house to your skills and abilities.

6. One of the walls of the house is the application process. You can explain in as much detail as you think appropriate.

7. The next step in the process, and another wall, is the interview.

8. Another window to the house can be added here for clients who have not yet obtained a high school diploma or a GED.

9. Finally, you have your first job or the ceiling of our house. This survival employment will help you gain both experience and references (the stairs), which will help you to reach your long-term goals.

The Roof
house complete

The Roof

10. The roof was always my favorite part of the employment plan. Here, clients get to choose a long-term goal. Some will have ready answers. Others will need encouragement to think about what they might like to do. Once the clients have selected a goal, this goes at the pinnacle of the roof.

11. Next, we need to add in the supports for the roof including steps that are specific to the client’s long-term goal. For example, the clients may need advanced English, additional trainings or certifications, or degree evaluations. Depending on the career choice you may need to do additional research with the client to see what requirements are necessary for the job.

12. Once you have completed the plan, make a copy of it and attach it to the clients budget for the clients to keep as a reminder of why they need to work and how they are going to make their goals a reality.

Exponential Benefits of the Employment Plan

To some in our field it may seem easy to call up a partner employer about a prospective new hire, convince them you have a great candidate for the job, and complete all the application for your client. The client gets the job rather quickly and is working the next week.

However, in this abbreviated job placement, important parts of the process are missing. The clients missed out entirely on the employment process. They will be starting at zero should they lose the job and you will have to start the process all over again. If we teach clients how to understand and navigate the employment process, they will advance to greater levels of self-sufficiency and also to their long-term goals more quickly.

By allowing them to participate in making the plan and applying for jobs, your clients will be more likely to take responsibility for their own employment.

cassie pic 1Cassie Smith is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. She worked as a Refugee Employment Specialist at Caritas of Austin in Austin, Texas from 2010 until 2014.


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Simple Strategies to Address Common Barriers, Part 5

Unrealistic ExpectationsAt a recent Maryland-wide workshop which focused on refugee workforce development, Higher had participants do a brainstorming activity, in which groups worked together to list common barriers refugees face to employment as well as possible solutions.

These types of activities inevitably generate a “wish list” of solutions which are great ideas but not always in our power to implement quickly (e.g. adding staff members, ESL at work sites, home-based self-employment for refugee women).

While there are certainly times to pursue those big ideas, perhaps the best thing about exercises like this is that they allow groups to identify simpler solutions that can be implemented immediately.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been sharing insights from your Maryland peers, focusing on simple and practical strategies that are relatively easy to implement!

So far, we’ve shared tips for overcoming challenges including transportationchildcare, limited English proficiency (LEP), and challenges related to digital literacy/computer access.  Today we’ll wrap up this series and share a few tips on overcoming the barrier of unrealistic client expectations.

Tips for Managing Expectations:

  • Educate yourself on the information clients receive during pre-arrival cultural orientation (CO) so that you can reinforce important points and/or present new information that may not have been covered in the overseas CO (See Adjusting Expectations: The Cultural Orientation Connection, a recent Higher post by Daryl Morrissey, Cultural Orientation Coordinator at LIRS).
  • Collaborate with R&P cultural orientation staff to make sure that messaging around employment is consistent.
  • Consistent messaging with within office among staff- have a team strategy for how you will handle client expectations.
  • Connect with community leaders to encourage consistent messaging within communities.
  • Set expectations early- have honest conversations about appropriate expectations.
  • Highlight the benefits of two-income households and ensure equality of services to both spouses.
  • Walk the line of hopeful realism. Emphasize the importance of taking that initial survival job while also recognizing the skills, experience and education, your clients bring, and laying out a path and timeline for how they can pursue a fulfilling career over time. Develop short, medium, and long term goals with clients.
  • Mobilize mentors (including former refugees) who will help support clients by giving them realistic expectations and a sense of hope.
  • Educate clients about training programs and career development options.

For more on managing expectations see:

Managing Expectations: When Will You Find Me a Job?

Creative, Participatory Employment Plans that Work

Help Highly Skilled Refugees Look Out the Windshield

Feel free to participate in the conversation by leaving a comment below or sending us an email at

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Looking for Arabic Language Job Readiness Resources?



In case you didn’t know, YOU are our greatest resource! After receiving several requests for Arabic language resources, we put out a call for resources earlier this month, and sure enough, our network responded.

Our friends Ali Abid and Brittani Mcleod from Catholic Community Services of Utah submitted a helpful English/Arabic version of the Walmart job interview, and Carol Tucker from Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska provided us with several other Arabic/English Job Readiness materials.

Visit our Downloadable Resources section to check out these great resources! You may also want to check out a post we published in 2014 that links to picture vocabulary guides in several languages, including Arabic.

As we continue to serve Iraqi refugees and SIV recipients and anticipate increasing numbers of Syrian arrivals, these resources will continue to be a “must have” for your Cultural Orientation and Job Readiness tool box. If you have other Arabic language resources that you would like to share please email us at

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Arabic Language Job Readiness Resources

Here is a list of helpful Job Readiness Resources in Arabic that we have collected from our network:

Many thanks to Ali Abid and Brittani Mcleod at Catholic Community Services of Utah and Carol Tucker at Lutheran Family Services, Nebraska. If you have other Arabic language resources that you would like to share please email us at

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5 Phrases For Navigating Difficult Client Conversations


0097447b-21ea-4c90-b88a-fb189307270aSome of the most difficult conversations to navigate as refugee employment professionals are those related to client expectations or difficulties they may be having at work.

Of course we want our clients to be happy and have a job that is fulfilling, but more often than not the first job opportunity that presents itself is not exactly a “dream come true.”

How can we make our clients feel like we care about their preferences and goals, while also helping them make healthy adjustments to their expectations?

These 5 phrases, recently highlighted on career blog The Muse, may be helpful to file away for these delicate conversations:

“That sounds important. Let me write that down.”

This phrase signals that you are listening and that you value your client’s background, skills and preferences.

You can value a client’s perspective even if you don’t agree with their plans or preferences. Doing so builds trust and will likely make them more receptive to hearing you if you need to challenge their perspective later in the conversation.

“Thank you for sharing that with me” or “I’ll keep that in mind” are other phrases that can help build rapport, particularly when you are first getting to know a client.


This phrase can help you motivate clients while also correcting and deepening their understanding of the situation at hand. “Yes, BUT…” indicates that you are not listening or disagree, “Yes…AND” is more collaborative, communicating that you like their idea, but have something else to add or see another helpful angle.

Add this phrase to your mental toolbox and use it when developing employment plans with clients or discussing their expectations. For example, “Yes, I also think that you have the potential to be a supervisor, AND this entry level position is your first step in that direction.”

“Tell me about the last time that happened.”

This phrase helps you not jump to conclusions. This can be particularly helpful for discussing problems clients may be encountering at work. For example, perhaps you have a client who is telling you that they are planning to quit their job because of a specific problem they keep having at work.

“Tell me about the last time that happened” will help your client analyze the situation, provide you with the details you need, and create an opportunity for you and your client to collaborate on possible solutions besides quitting.

“Let me repeat that back to you.”

If you want a classic text book way to make anyone in any situation feel listened to, this is it. Phrases like “Let me repeat that back to you” or “So what I hear you saying is…” help you be sure you clearly understood the person speaking to you.

Once you clearly understand their position, you will be in a better position to take the conversation in a productive direction, and the risk that you will offend them by making false assumptions is much lower.


No matter what culture you’re from, no one likes to have their dreams squashed by someone else. While our position as refugee employment professionals does at times require us to give clients a “healthy dose of reality” it is very important to remain positive and hopeful while helping clients adjust their expectations.

Adding “yet” to the end of your sentence opens possibilities, rather than closing them. “You cannot resume your former career yet.” is worlds apart from “You cannot resume your former career.” The addition of “yet” begs the question “If not now, then when?” and opens up a conversation about the steps that will be necessary to accomplish one’s goals. And that is where you come in!

For more tips related on effective communication for refugee employment professionals, sign up for Higher’s Online Learning Institute, and complete our 3-Part “Employability Assessment” training.

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Free Card Sort Tool to ID Core Values


Some of the values included in the online values card sort tool featured in this post

“There are the values we think we should have and then there are the values we really have”, according to an article by Lily Zhang for The Muse.

The difference between the two is even harder to understand when you add cultural differences and all of the stressors involved in starting a job quickly in a new country.

 Values Card Sort by Richard Knowdell is a free resource that provides 54 different core values and three categories to sort them into ranging from Very Important to Not Important.

We usually help clients think about the marketable skills they offer.  When we talk about the kind of job they want based on values, it is often in the context of assuring their compliance with the requirement to accept the first available job.

How to Use the Tool in Your Work
  • Zhang suggests using this tool to clarify the choice between two career opportunities or define required qualities in a company’s culture.
  • Consider using it to focus a discussion about accepting the first available job.  You can explain how realistic job options will offer or lead toward the fundamental values clients prioritize in the exercise.
  • Use it to gently address cultural differences that might shift some of the values. For example, the stated value might be “close to home”. The real value might be “social status” that is damaged by using public transportation in their culture. This exercise could make it easier to talk about how different U.S. workplace values might help you help clients feel more open to being flexible.
  • For clients that have never had the chance to work or chose the kind of work they want to do, this simple exercise could help them begin to think about that choice for the first time.  It offers some good English language vocabulary, too.
  • You could even integrate into your employability assessment or initial discussions about program requirements and agency policies.
Some Technical Details

After a very simple sign-up process, it’s easy to find in in the Tools and Resources section listed on the top menu bar.  You can reset the tool as many times as you want to use it with more than one client.  Although they offer an option to print a report, it doesn’t really do that.


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Employment Plans

Employment Plan GraphicThere’s alot to say about Employment Plans.  They’re an essential of our work.

When done well, they

  • put clients at the center of making and executing their own job search strategies
  • help adjust expectations about a starter job by placing it in the context of a realistic career path
  • guide your work with clients, and
  • document a core service that most of us are required to provide by donors or our agencies.

The reality is that even the best plan is likely to change over time.  Refugees learn about options and opportunities they never even knew about.  Maybe they never had the time to dream about long term goals.  Read a previous blog post for tips on how to help refugees begin to identify their long term career goals.

Check out Higher’s Employability Assessment eLearning training (click here to get your free username and password) and learn how one Employment Specialist uses the metaphor of a house to help clients develop realistic expectations and their own employment plan.

Have an effective form, strategy or experience developing employment plans?  Share it with the network via Higher at 

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Free Webinar About Serving Skilled Immigrants

GTBWES Talent Bridge is offering a webinar – Connecting with model programs to Serve Skilled Immigrants – on Tuesday, October 14 at 3pm EST.

It will feature IRC Silver Spring (home to Matthew Fortier, Higher Peer Advisor) as one model of how to assess the needs of highly skilled clients and target services that meet their unique needs.

Click here to go to the registration page.



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Female Genital Cutting


Naima Abdullahi runs a support group for victims of genital cutting. She was cut at age 9. Photo Credit: Amber Fouts for The New York Times

Working with cultural differences is important in our work.  Remaining judgment free is a critical skill that some may find difficult around the issue of female genital cutting.

Did you know that 98% of women in Somalia and 89% in Eritrea are cut?  Did you know that “vacation cutting” (performed when US-resident daughters visit their countries or origin or relatives elsewhere during school holidays) is common enough in the US to have a name?  Neither did I.

A recent New York Times article shocked me.  I asked a few trusted advisors how to frame this information in a blog post and if I should even post about it at all.

If anyone has insight about how this issue could affect employment services and our work with clients, please share.





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LGBTQ Employment Perspectives

rainbowLGBTQ clients face additional barriers to employment.  Sometimes, those barriers can include misconceptions and stereotypes on the part of employers, colleagues and, even employment professionals.

We are mindful of how cultural differences might affect our clients success and the ways we can best help them.  Working with LGBTQ clients should be handled with the same attention and respect.

Heartland Alliance, an ORR technical assistance contractor, offers two great resources to help you develop successful strategies for providing effective services.  Each include a special section on employment.  Download them both here. 

To learn more about how to identify and address cultural sterotypes, watch a clip from Higher’s Workplace Culture training.

Two points from the Heartland Alliance resources were especially relevant to my own experience working with LGBT clients.  It would be great if others could share their experience or questions.

Documentation and Legal Names

New hire paperwork must be completed with the client’s legal name as it appears on their eligibility documentation (i.e. I-9 or EAD).  No matter the client’s gender identity, a mismatch during an employment eligibility verification causes problems for clients and employers.

Although documentation issues can usually be resolved, for LGBTQ clients, this situation can also have the unintended consequence of disclosing identity issues better explained in a different way.

How to Communicate with Employers?

After heated debate, my team decided not to disclose a client’s gender identity as we were helping her apply for a job with one of our most trusted employment partner.  The recommendation included in Heartland Alliance’s publication is to consider having a conversation with trusted employers to ensure they are sensitive to the participant’s transgender identity.

When the employer realized the situation (after the client got the job offer and began to work), it put a bit of stress on our relationship, but we were able to work together to modify corporate processes to make everyone comfortable in the workplace.



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