New Year, New Focus

As the refugee resettlement world starts a new fiscal year, you may be wondering how to refocus some of your energy, particularly if you are seeing a smaller case load. The Refugee Employment Services (RES) team at the YMCA International Services Center in Houston, TX, has started refining their services and refocusing goals for the upcoming year after experiencing a significant decline in the number of clients. Joanne Pantaleon Torres, Employment Services Director, shares several ways they are customizing and strengthening their employment services and community partnerships, including:  

  1. Providing higher-quality job placements. Joanne’s team is applying more time and energy to find individual solutions to client barriers. Fewer clients mean employment case managers spend more time getting to know each client, understanding their unique situation and goals, and making better job matches.

YMCA International Services Refugee Employment Services Team

The YMCA International Services Center is also implementing a more assertive approach to employer prospecting. Engaging a front desk volunteer who doesn’t mind making cold calls to new businesses is resulting in higher-paying job leads. Employment specialists are researching online job openings with current employers to find positions that require additional skills, pay better, or have more advancement opportunities that go beyond “typical” placements.

  1. Rethinking vocational training. In FY2016, YMCA International Services Center moved the Vocational Training Program in-house by hiring a full-time Vocational Training Liaison who screens potential training participants, reviews their background experience, and makes recommendations for trainings. Previously, the RES team referred clients to a refugee services office at partnering organization Houston Community College (HCC). HCC continues to be a preferred vocational training partner for YMCA, and together they are working on solutions to provide continued learning opportunities that accommodate clients’ work schedules. For example, they recently piloted bilingual HVAC and welding classes on the weekends for Spanish-speaking clients. It’s been successful so far—there was a 100% successful completion rate among their first weekend welding cohort!


  1. Connecting with more Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL) opportunities. Referring clients to a new Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL) program has been a highlight of the past year, and the RES team is looking for ways to expand these resources. The Bilingual Education Institute, a network partner of the YMCA, is offering VESL classes onsite at two hotels where several YMCA clients work. The RES team is also exploring a new partnership with Houston Center for Literacy’s “English at Work” program in upcoming months to incorporate into services offered to employed clients. YMCA International Services has observed an increased commitment from clients in these classes vs. traditional ESL classes. In addition being conveniently located and scheduled, Joanne points out that, “participants are more likely to stay in the class and learn when it’s connected to their job.”

What are your team’s priorities for the coming year? We’d love to hear your thoughts at

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Donated Bikes Pave the Way to Jobs in Tucson

Cars, bikes and buses – oh my! Transportation is a common challenge for newly-arrived refugees, but you might find some inspiration from Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest in Tucson (LSS-SW) and their strategy for using donated bikes to help clients get to work.

LSS-SW provides 1-2 bicycles per client household with employable adults, thanks to partnerships with Wheels for Kids and local Boy Scout drives. Both partnering organizations have provided donated, refurbished adult and child bikes.

“We’ve seen clients who are able to work that might not have otherwise been able to.” Since several of Tucson’s bus lines have limited hours of operation, “many of our clients working at hotels have to find another way to get home,” says Kyle Dignoti, LSS-SW Resource and Pre-arrival Coordinator. “Having the opportunity to use a bike has really impacted their mobility.”

Bikes are never given to clients without appropriate safety equipment, including a helmet, rope lock, and brake lights. Safety information is reviewed one-on- one with each recipient, and bicycle safety classes are available through Pima County.

Once a client has a bike, maintenance can be a challenge, but BICAS (Bicycle Inter Community Art and Salvage) in Tucson helps overcome that hurdle by training clients how to fix their bicycles. Clients are able to keep their bikes running and know how to perform basic fixes on their own.

If you have a car or bike donation program in place, we’d love to hear about at it at Haven’t found a community partner to help develop these resources yet? Start by googling terms like “donated bikes” or “bike classes” and see who is in your area – you might be surprised how easy it is to find great local partners!



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Resumes and Cover Letters – Infographic

One of our most requested resources is for resources to assist with creating resumes for clients. We’ve searched far and wide for resources to share, and here’s what we’ve come up with so far.

Although the below infographic uses the term CV  (curriculum vitae), the preferred European term, the advice applies to the U.S. term resume, as well.  Here are a few more tips that you might find helpful. Be sure to check out the original articles too – we pulled out the most relevant tips for working with our clients, but the articles are full of valuable content.

Youth Mainstream Resource for Resumes and Cover Letters

Choose verbs that mean something. “Assisted,” “Worked on,” “Contributed to” and so on don’t convey much to a prospective employer. Instead, say what you did: “Wrote,” “Designed,” or “Managed.” The more specific, the better, according to this Harvard Business Review Article

Share accomplishments, not responsibilities. This Harvard Business Review Article also includes a helpful “Do” and “Don’t” list, as well as links to sample resumes.

Resources for Cover Letters: This Harvard Business Review Article includes a helpful “Do” and “Don’t” list.

The 11 Most Common CV Writing Questions Answered Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics


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Everything You Wish You Didn’t Know About Pre-Employment Drug Tests

Drug Screen Fail iStock_000021653588XSmallThrowback Thursday: a classic Higher blog post about a fundamental of our work.

How many of you have felt the frustration of a failed drug screen that prevents a client from starting a job you worked hard to help them get?  It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, one client’s failure to pass a drug screen can put a dent in employer relationships.  It definitely has a negative impact on family self-sufficiency.

When a candidate fails a drug screen, most employers will not accept a re-application for six months.  For large corporations with multiple brands or retail outlets, the ban applies system-wide.  For clients with minimal English, one more barrier to employment is especially problematic.

Here are some tips for working with clients around drug screens.

Discuss US law related to illegal substances in Cultural Orientation. 

Laws and cultural norms may be more accepting of the use of some substances that are illegal in the US.  Clients will not know our laws and expectations unless they are told.

If you involve law enforcement spokespersons directly as presenters, hearing about the consequences of illegal drug use from someone in uniform can be especially effective.  It goes beyond discouraging client drug use to include issues of neighborhood safety, school security for their children and long term family success.

While a failed drug screen won’t result in deportation, a drug related arrest could have negative consequences for their long term immigration status, preventing them from becoming U.S. citizens.

Include an explanation of how a drug screen works in Job Readiness Class. 


Betel nut. Barrier to employment? Perhaps. Illegal? No.

Describing what happens after a job interview is a logical place to discuss drug screening since it is a common pre-employment step in the process.  If  asked to take a drug test, it is a good indication that a client will get a job offer if they pass.  Clients should be aware that drug tests are often free for job candidates and expensive for employers.

Explain that alcohol, tobacco or betel nut are not included.  Substances that are illegal in the US – including marijuana – are.  For our clients, pills, cocaine-based products and party drugs are largely unfamiliar and inaccessible.  Marijuana or hashish is usually the substance that causes issues for our clients during their initial resettlement period.

Reinforce in One-on-One Client Meetings.

Describe what happens in a clinic that administers the tests to help clients who don’t speak much English navigate a pre-employment drug screen.  Be specific about container use, sanitation, form completion and identification, especially if they will go unaccompanied by resettlement agency staff.  Don’t forget to remind clients to bring any medications they take with them to the drug screening clinic.  Some prescription medications can cause the same results as detecting illegal drug use, which is called a “false positive”.

Consider preparing translated versions of a map, directions and procedures for large employers or commonly used clinics accessible via public transportation.  Employers will likely see this as offering them a valuable customer service.

Talk about the kinds of jobs that client has expressed interest in that will NEVER be a possibility if they can’t pass a drug screen or if they have a drug-related arrest record.  Any kind of driving, security or medical job is likely to be included on the list.

Exactly How Direct Should You Be?

 As an employment professional, you need to know up front if a client will not be able to pass a drug screen.  If your approach makes a client feel judged or guilty or fearful of being punished, they will likely not be honest and might not take you seriously.

fake remedies

Drinking lots of cranberry juice is not proven to help pass a drug screen.

Profiling and stereotyping clients is never a good thing.  But, if you suspect a client might present this barrier, be direct.  Explain the consequences.  Advise that they refrain from using illegal substances, at least until they have a job.  Read more about the employer perspective, including their preference for candidates to take themselves out of the running before taking and failing a drug screen.

Debunk rumors about the effectiveness of home remedies or expensive products for sale in retail stores or online.  Common wisdom is that marijuana usage can be detected for at least a month after the last use.  The only way to be sure you can pass a drug screen is to avoid using illegal drugs.


How you feel when a client can’t pass a pre-employment drug test.

What to do if a client can’t pass (or doesn’t pass)? 

Identify some employers who do not require pre-employment drug screens.  Many restaurants and some hotel chains are included in that list.  Small or locally-owned businesses are more likely to avoid unnecessary expense if safety and liability are not at issue.

Discuss counseling or other treatment options with case managers, who can reinforce the information clients are hearing from you and in classes.

Present affected clients with options for skills training or intensive ESL classes to keep them productive (and too busy to revert to previous bad habits).  It is likely to take longer to help find a job for client who has failed a drug screen or admitted to the need to wait until they can pass.

As an agency, discuss what your policy related to drug use is and how it will be communicated to all clients.  You could consider sanctions (especially related to financial benefits), a reduction in employment services or even requiring a self-funded drug screen before resuming active employment assistance.  Having a policy and procedures outlined and explained in advance can help you inform clients, preserve employer relationships and encourage long-term self-sufficiency.

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What’s it like in a Refugee Camp?

jim stokes

Jim is Senior Manager, Economic Empowerment Programs with IRC Dallas and a founding member of Higher’s Peer Advisory Network.

And How Will That Experience Affect Our Employment Work with Syrians?

Jim Stokes spent the past 3+ months working with Syrian refugees living in a refugee camp in Eastern Turkey.

He will answer our questions as a guest blogger.  What do we want to ask him?

Send Higher your questions and watch the blog to get answers from someone who does what we do and can help us begin to adjust how we provide employment services for a new population.

Jim’s specific focus in the camp was livelihoods programming, which encompasses people’s capabilities, assets, income and activities required to secure the necessities of life.  This sounds very similar to employment and everything we do to help our clients find it. 

I can’t wait to learn more about Syrian workforce expectations, their experiences in camps and how Jim’s unique insight can help us. 

Meanwhile, you can click here to learn more about life in a South Sudan Refugee Camp.


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Friday Feature: City of Immigrants by Steve Earle

City of Immigrants (one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite musicians) captures the commonality of the immigrant experience that the majority of people living in the US share.

Go back just a couple of generations for most people and the challenges facing newly arrived refugees are shared by their own family members.  That can be a powerful connection to tap into when deepening employer relationships, supporting refugee integration into the culture of their workplace or helping them find a connection when they might not immediately see it in the midst of so many new experiences.

(This post was first published more than a year ago.  The song’s stuck in my head today, so I’m sharing the love.)


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Friday Feature: The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood

cocuyosWorking with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or questioning) clients presents unique challenges.  The Prince of Los Cocuyos (2014) is a memoir written in an authentic Cuban voice you’ll recognize from many of our clients (sexual identity aside).

It’s a useful window on the role of cultural traditions of all kinds in family dynamics.  The specifics are Cuban, but the generational differences first generation immigrants experience apply to all of our clients as younger family members grow up in the US.  Click here to read a more thorough review.

(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.)



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Robert Bukenya Explains Selling Yourself in a Job Interview

Roberty Bukenya, Cafe Clarkston, Higher Advantage, Refugee Employment

After working steadily since he was resettled in 2009, Robert is currently working part time while studying aviation at Georgia Tech, building on his work experience at an airport in Uganda.

Robert Bukenya, a successful refugee job seeker from Congo, explains how and why to sell yourself in a job interview in the great video you can watch at the end of this post.

Thanks to Cafe Clarkston (GA) for sharing it.You likely repeat this advice over and over in job readiness classes and client meetings.  It will be much more convincing explained by a peer.  (And a very charming, well-spoken one, at that.)

Consider showing this video in your job readiness class or one-on-one client coaching sessions.

More about Cafe Clarkston

Cafe Clarkston is the only full-service refugee employment program we know of that does not receive refugee resettlement funding. It’s only one of the many successful services provided by Friends of Refugees. Higher enjoys a long history of partnership with their innovative staff.

In FY2013 at Friends of Refugees, more than 50,000 volunteer hours served over 2,000 individuals across 10 program areas, including hundreds of job placements, 7,000 meals served in kids’ summer camp, hundreds of moms and kids learning English together, dozens of babies born to healthy moms and over 70 family kitchen tables filled with fresh produce from their plots in the Jolly Avenue community gardens!

Thanks Brian, Lauren, Adam and Robert!


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Long-term Labor Market Trends

Where the jobs areThe Harvard Business Review analyses long term hiring trends with five charts (click here) and analysis.

The bottom line is that economic recovery has not delivered enough jobs to match 2008 levels but certain sectors and industries have experienced steady growth.

Government is the top sector, followed by education and health services.  Growth in home health care jobs didn’t surprise me.  Lack of growth in information industry jobs did.

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Preparing Clients to Provide Employment References

Thumbs up ImageFor most of our clients, the issue with providing employment references is that they don’t have any appropriate in the US workforce context.

References are important, especially for newcomers with unfamiliar or minimal work histories.  In fact, HR professionals see an increased reliance on quality references to separate effective social media self-promotion from real qualifications and experience.

Initially, clients can use resettlement agency staff as references – case managers, job developers, ESL instructors or employment specialists.  Be sure clients know this and that they are prepared with the correct contact information to provide when references are requested.

Here are some additional talking points and tips you can use to explain the concept and help clients get started building references.

Help your colleagues provide effective references.  Make sure they agree to play this role.  Provide them with talking points.  For example, the client has:

  • been on-time to all meetings and appointments.  They will come to work on time, too.
  • attended all orientation, work readiness and ESL classes.  They are ready and able to learn.
  • complied with all agency policies and eligibility requirements.  They follow the rules.
  • asked many questions about work and jobs in the US.  They are ready and eager to work.
  • a very supportive, stable family or living situation.  They will be a reliable employee.

Define the term and tell clients when to expect a reference request.    References are people who can talk about your ability to do the job and their experience with you as a reliable, trustworthy and qualified person.  Employers often request that you provide them with three references that they will call before they offer you a job.

Take the opportunity to reinforce the importance of keeping a job for at least six months.  Most people in the US use references from their previous jobs.  This is one more reason why it is important to keep a job for at least six months so you can get to know people well enough to ask them to be a reference.  Quitting without giving at least two weeks notice is a guaranteed way to get a negative reference.

Provide guidance for selecting references now and in the future.  References don’t have to be people you worked with.  They should be someone who knows you and can give examples of why you would be a great employee.

  • Your preacher, deacon, fellow volunteer or even a neighbor or community leader could be a good reference.
  • Don’t list relatives as references.  Everyone knows your family will only say good things about you.
  • Be sure your references speak fluent English and can be easily reached by a US phone number or via email.  Employers won’t spend the time or money to make an international phone call.

Finally, these steps for lining up great references could be useful for some of the most advanced clients – or maybe for you.




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