By Tawanah Reeves-Ligon
According to the most recent analyses conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics since the COVID-19 outbreak, projected growth for many STEM/STEAM occupations in the United States is expected to further increase as the country’s needs continue to shift.
For those employers, recruiting agents and hiring managers looking for nontraditional labor sources, the answer could be much closer than one would think.
Educated, Experienced, Invisible
According to Jina Krause-Vilmar, president and CEO of Upwardly Global, “…there are over two million college-educated immigrants and refugees who are legally here, who are un- or under-employed.” Most of them have years of experience from their respective home countries, and many are in the STEAM fields. Upwardly Global is a non-profit organization, based in San Francisco (with satellite offices in New York, Chicago, and DC) that helps immigrant, refugee and asylee professionals rebuild their careers in the United States.
If two million seems like a hefty number of qualified, but virtually invisible, applicants, that is because it is. Many obstacles exist between the legal immigrant and refugee population and entry into the professional, competitive American workforce. “There are barriers that people face when they come into this county. We don’t recognize international education or work experience. We don’t make it easy for people with foreign credentials to understand how they would plug and play into the US market,” shared Krause-Vilmar, “There are cultural differences that present as barriers in the interview process: the use of eye contact, firm handshakes, the culture of self-promoting oneself during an interview, mastering the American way of storytelling. All of these cultural differences can become a barrier for folks to be successful during the interview process.”
She continued, “[The idea of two million under or unemployed, yet qualified applicants] is also staggering because we know that ethnically diverse companies perform 33 percent better than the norm. Forbes’ best workplaces for diversity enjoy 24 percent higher revenue growth. The most productive teams are made up of people from different backgrounds with varied experiences and perspectives. So, we know the data is out there. Diversity is good for business, and you’ve got a population — in country — that has the hard skills and the work experience, and they can’t tap into opportunity. These barriers don’t seem like they should be insurmountable, but they are, especially when you’re coming here and you’re looking to survive. So, you’re working that rideshare job while you’re also trying to juggle finding a professional job and potentially also juggling childcare, etc.”
An Untapped Resource During COVID-19
For many of these workers who are in the medical field, standing on the sidelines, especially during the early parts of the pandemic, was painful and heartrending. It was also a waste of a potential talent pool. According to Jina Krause-Vilmar, “We have 165,000 internationally trained doctors in the United States who are un- or under-employed. We surveyed 95 percent of those who are in our network, and 93 percent of them said, ‘If we could, we would serve even though it would be at risk to ourselves and our families,’ because this [survey was taken in] the early days when people weren’t even getting masks. One female doctor from Eritrea told me, ‘I feel like a fraud. I took an oath, and I can’t do it. I’m not allowed to do it.’ We’ve got 8,000 internationally trained doctors in the Bronx and Queens here in New York City where I live, and, during the height of the crisis here when we had doctors committing suicide and people were claiming it was a warlike zone, these people were not allowed to serve. It’s absolutely heartbreaking that during a pandemic we can’t reimagine how people with skills can be plugged in while our current doctors are absolutely exhausted.”
Advocating for Immigrants and Refugees
Before Upwardly Global, Krause-Vilmar spent more than thirteen years working in fragile states and conflict zones across the world helping governments build models for economic inclusion and workplace inclusion for refugees. “So, I would say the issue has been very close, near and dear to my heart around, ‘How do we help people on the move restart their lives?’ And how do we build systems so they can effectively integrate into the workforce. And how do we build systems so that they work for people? Especially underrepresented groups?” she said. “Working with foreign governments to build these models…really gave me a clear sense of how we could think big and see what would be possible, particularly in the context of the United States…”
Through their nationwide network, Upwardly Global has been able to assist by working with those who are new or acclimating to the United States. The organization strives to make them more competitive by helping applicants and hiring managers assess the skills, experience and education of applicants against American standards. They also get applicants access to additional training or education courses, if necessary. Furthermore, Upwardly Global educates those in their network on American culture and business language skills, since professional conversation is different from the casual English they may have learned. It allows them to be better able to integrate, while still being authentic to who they are.
But that’s just the start. According to Krause-Vilmar, “85 percent of jobs are found through networks. So, if you’re new to this country, you have no or very limited networks, including professional networks. So, it can be really difficult to access opportunity as a result of that.” So, how can your hiring agents tap into this valuable labor pool? Upwardly Global wants to generate conversations around this issue. “Some of the work we do with recruiters and hiring managers is to really help them understand a couple of things. One is how do you evaluate a degree from a foreign country? So, if someone has a degree from the University of Baghdad, it’s very hard for me as a recruiter to understand the value of that degree versus somebody with a degree from the University of Connecticut,” explained Krause-Vilmar. “I might understand if [UConn]’s a good school, if that’s a comparable, competitive place that we like to recruit from where we get good talent. I cannot make that same assessment [for the University of Baghdad].” Thus, she believes that the question becomes, “How can we hire people based on skill versus based on pedigree, and how are we building hiring and recruiting systems that allow us to not throw away a person’s CV?”
For example, it helps to not be as quick to disregard CVs with employment gaps. Many refugees and asylees have gaps because they were in refugee camps, were traveling, worked a ‘survival job’ to get by, or went back to school to get additional training. “It’s really hard for them,” said Krause-Vilmar, “Most recruiters are trained to throw away CVs, you do not look at CVs that have a gap.” Recruiters can also attempt to make contact with refugee resettlement programs or organizations like Upwardly Global.
Looking at the Big Picture
“So much of our identity is part of our professional identity. We spend a third of our lives at work. The number of engineers we have from Venezuela, for example, who work in these small stores, and they don’t tell their coworkers about their previous life. They don’t want to advertise their previous life as engineers. It feels shameful. And the women! Some of these women have worked hard in their home countries. We have a woman from Saudi Arabia. She was the first woman software engineer in her company. She worked in Saudi Arabia, left, came here and was working in a bar. She fought hard for an education, fought hard to work and came here to the land of opportunity, ironically, and it was harder for her to work.”
The problem lies in a lack of infrastructure to meet their unique need. “There are no services for them. They can’t go to a workforce agency and say, ‘What can you do?’ ‘How can you help me?’ Because most workforce agencies are largely geared towards helping folks find, what we call rapid attachment jobs, like forklift drivers, etc., those immediate jobs to help people get into the workforce.” They don’t assist with finding positions for those with specialized skills. “We’re not set up for that,” said Krause-Vilmar who went on to talk about the potential impact that putting a dent in college-educated, legal immigrant unemployment would make. “We place about 1,000 people a year into jobs. Close to 50 percent of those are in STEAM roles. Their income gain is about $50,000 a year, so they come to us earning on average about $5,000 a year or less, and now they leave earning about $60-65,000 a year. These 1,000 people a year contribute about $50 million in consumer spending to our economy. So, there’s a compelling reason to get them into the workforce.”
“Our message really is that you shouldn’t have to start from the bottom, and you shouldn’t have to start from scratch. Surely, the country which is a land of immigrants, in some part of our identity…[can] reimagine what inclusion looks like. It sets a barometer for the rest of the country when the people who are educated can’t even make it because of where they come from.”