Almahdi (not his real name) was an attorney for the royal family in one of the richest countries in the Middle East. He came to the U. S. with education, solid English language skills, influence, prestige, an elite lifestyle and, if not a boatload, at least a carload, of money.
He expected that life in the U.S. would be good and that he would simply pick up where he left off in his home country. It only took him six months . . . to hit bottom.
So many highly-skilled newcomers hear and believe that America is the land of opportunity, and that they will immediately achieve here what they had at home. If only it were that easy.
Typical barriers to employment
Almost all newcomers face numerous barriers to employment. Here are some:
- Language acuity is perhaps the most important. Even with a good command of vocabulary and syntax, missed subtleties and an accent mark newcomers as an outsider, as “other.” The higher the level of employment sought, the larger this barrier.
- U.S. workplace culture: For example, how (or even IF) to ask questions of superiors, peers, and subordinates has a huge impact on the ability to get and keep a job.
- Transferable skills, experience, and knowledge: A master automobile mechanic may never have worked with computerized cars or diagnostic tools. Here, lacking those skills makes it difficult to obtain work as a mechanic’s helper, let alone as a mechanic.
- Stereotypes and perceptions: How immigrants are perceived by others can also be a significant barrier. Without the trust and reputation an accountant developed in her home country, a similar job – and access to confidential financial information – is unattainable.
- Self-perception and expectations: Perhaps the most difficult barrier to overcome, is how highly skilled clients perceive themselves and their job opportunities. We’ve all met refugees who refuse to apply for jobs that are “beneath them” or don’t “measure up” to what they were doing at home.
For example, I knew a man who came to this country from a relatively high level, wanted to become free of government benefits and provide for his family. He took a custodial job he could get quickly, but told his wife he was an assistant nurse, because she would feel humiliated if she knew his true vocation.
What we can do differently
What can we do when assisting clients with higher-level skills who will not consider lower-level work?
Empathize with their perspective. I often wonder how I might feel if the only job I could get in an unfamiliar environment was washing someone else’s dirty dishes, cleaning a hotel room, or scrubbing toilets. Acknowledging that a client’s feelings about this are valid is a first step toward establishing the trust we need to help them move forward.
Choices have consequences. The decision to work and accept a specific job – or not – is the client’s, not ours. We can instruct, encourage, recommend, and even impose sanctions, but we cannot force them to make the decision we think best. We can help them understand that the freedom to choose comes with consequences.
Failure is a great teacher. I’ve seen folks who started out looking for higher-level work that was a match for their solid skills and experience. After several months of failure, they came to their own decision that any work is better than no work in the beginning. And, sometimes, impossible things do happen, even when the experts, in this case us, are certain they won’t.
Information from an “Honest Broker” is powerful. Be open and direct with our clients. Sometimes people don’t want to take lower-level jobs simply because no one has helped them identify options or understand the big picture. Find out exactly why a person does or doesn’t want to work, and then discuss how those reasons might play out. Discuss all the options, not just the ones you think best.
Balance dreams and paying the bills. Allow space for a dual-track approach. Client simultaneously seeks and is willing to accept the first available entry-level job and more professional options at the same time. One caution – do not suggest accepting a job on a trial basis; there are many negative consequences to failing to keep a job for at least six months.
Clarify U.S. cultural values about work, respect, and status. Doing any job to provide for yourself and your family has honor and dignity in the U.S. Because of this basic of U.S. culture, starter jobs can be the first step toward a management position or starting your own successful business.
Peer success trumps our wisdom. No matter what we say, clients are more likely to believe someone who started from the same place as they, learned for themselves, chose their own path into the future, and experienced the consequences of those choices. Look for ways to give clients access to peer advice.
Which brings us back to Almahdi, the royal attorney.
After six months, most of his money was gone and he felt sick about being no closer to his former life. He was ready to accept the first available job, but discovered that employers now saw him as over-qualified, stale after six months of not working, and basically unemployable.
Finally, a friend who owned a pet store gave him a start as a volunteer cleaning poop out of animal cages. When he spoke to new arrivals in my job readiness class, he said that job was the first step toward rebuilding his legal career. Through all his struggles he learned a great life lesson:
“Living our lives is like driving a car. You can look into the rearview mirror and only see where you have been, or you can look out the windshield and see where you are going. It’s much better to look out the windshield.”
Chris Hogg helps people develop the ability to make informed, self-directed career decisions, and to conduct effective employment searches. He has served as an employment counselor and job-readiness instructor, and currently is a work readiness specialist, at Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS) in Columbus, Ohio. CRIS resettles refugees, primarily from Iraq, Nepal, and Somalia.