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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  1. Chris Hogg says:

    “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.”

    Amen, sister!

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