NPR: "How One US Group Turns Migrants Into Employees"

by Joseph McKeown


When Almothana Alhamoud, a thirty-one-year-old Syrian data analyst, arrived in Chicago two years ago after fleeing the Syrian war, he took the first job offered him: a nightshift cashier at a convenience store. "When I came over here I just want to find anything to survive," he tells NPR over dinner with his family, who followed him to Chicago and are now applying for asylum. "It was cold and it was the worst winter I ever seen in my life. I was struggling there.”

Although Alhamoud holds a bachelor's degree in computer engineering and had a career as a data analyst for Syria's Agriculture Ministry, he discovered his degree was not recognized in the US. At job interviews in Chicago he struggled with his English.

It’s common for many refugees and immigrants to the US to face difficulties in their professional life as they adjust, and many take low-paying and low-skill jobs that are not commensurate with their education and experience. According to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, nearly 1.5 million college-educated immigrants were employed in low-skill jobs between 2009 and 2013. Commonly referred to as “brain waste,” Michael Fix, the Migration Policy Institute’s president, tells NPR that these workers in low skill jobs represent a tremendous loss to the US economy. In terms of income, these workers "lost 40 billion dollars a year, or about the same amount as the entire profit of the airline industry." He adds that the increase in their income would translate into almost $10.2 billion more in federal, state, and local taxes.

One organization looking to solve this problem is Upwardly Global, a nonprofit with headquarters in New York that helps immigrants and refugees rebuild their careers in the US. Over the past ten years, this organization has successfully placed 3,700 applicants in their first professional positions, says executive director Nicole Cicerani, with jobs that pay approximately $45,000 to $50,000 per year. "In all of our employer partnerships, nobody has agreed to hire our candidate. They agree to interview them and they hire them because they wind up being the best candidate for the job," says Cicerani. "That's really something when you think about itthe top candidate was somebody who was working as a hot dog vendor six months prior." 

Cities are starting to take notice. St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are either looking into or starting job initiatives aimed at refugees and immigrants. The Mosaic Project in St. Louis encourages business leaders to hire more international talent, fosters immigrant entrepreneurs, and connects refugees and migrants with professionals for career advancement. Cicerani says that while it is normal in the immigrant experience to "come to this country and sacrifice everything for the next generation," including education and professional advancement, her organization is showing it doesn’t have to be that way. "This is a postindustrial, skills-based economy and the idea is that we want people to do the jobs that we actually need in our economy."

Alhamoud signed up for job workshops at Upwardly Global's Chicago office. He was assigned a mentor, who helped him revise his resume and practice his interviewing skills. After seven months of workshops, Alhamoud found a job with Cox and Kings Global Service working as an IT help desk support technician for a company that processes visas for the Indian consulate in Chicago. "To learn to sell yourself, that's the hard part, it's the work culture thing here," he says. Now, he plans to spend his nights as a student and seek an advanced American degree.