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Estimates indicate that only 17 per cent of humanitarian entrants are employed 18 months after arrival. This is a long period of financial instability for the family and, more importantly, a period in which people lack a sense of purpose and belonging.
Working to speed up the transition from new arrival to employee is imperative, and one way is to question traditional assumptions around skills recognition for new humanitarian arrivals. One of the core CareerSeekers programs, which focuses on mid-career professionals with tertiary qualifications and professional work experience who are eager to re-establish their careers, is doing just that.
Participants undertake paid internships lasting 12 weeks that provide them with local experience, a professional reference and a connection to a network in their industry of expertise. This and similar programs globally also benefit businesses by helping to plug skills shortages and create more diverse workforces.
Its starting point is to value industry experience over formal qualifications, rather than subjecting humanitarian arrivals to a one-size-fits-all process of verification that is costly and often impractical. In Australia, the mainstream approach to skills recognition requires all new arrivals, regardless of the length of their professional experience, to have their qualifications certified by an institutional body such as Engineers Australia or the Australian Institute of Architects. An assessment often costing thousands of dollars is then made about whether the individual’s qualifications from overseas are the equivalent of an Australian degree; meanwhile, individuals sit unemployed and unable to utilise their skills.
It is an impossible task for local professional bodies to accredit universities from across the world. This results in bias against those with qualifications from some countries – particularly non-Western countries. However, this does not mean that the skills individuals have gained through their studies are not transferable to Australia.
“Without a qualification from an accredited university, humanitarian entrants are forced through a costly, lengthy and often unnecessary examination process,” explains CareerSeekers founder and CEO Michael Combs. “This prevents them from quickly testing how readily their skills and experience apply to the Australian context, and accelerating their settlement.”
This method of validating qualifications also holds migrants to the highest standards of the profession – standards that don’t apply to the typical job seeker.
“Many employers have a false understanding of work rights,” says Combs. “They’ll say, ‘We can’t employ someone unless they have their qualifications recognised’. But in reality, if you look on say, a construction engineering team, you’ll find people who are certified engineers as well as locals without a degree but with 20 years’ industry experience. And sure, the latter don’t sign off contracts and drawings, but they can perform the functions of someone who has a ‘recognised degree’.”
Industry members can play a role in the process of readying anyone, including humanitarian arrivals, for work, and that process should be streamlined in order to speed up their employment prospects.
“If we can get people into work quickly and let the industry have an influence on that journey, it means they are also getting plugged into a local network at the same time,” says Combs.
CareerSeekers is not alone in questioning the status quo of employment pathways. In 2015 the UK government launched a degree apprenticeship program with the aim of helping students gain a professional qualification while working. Tuition fees are covered by the apprenticeship levy, which means that students can earn while they learn, rather than accumulating student debt.
In Germany, refugee Arezoo Jalali was able to find work through an internship program that recognised skills rather than demanding qualifications when she arrived from Iran with her four-year-old son. The former lawyer was accepted into an internship program at Porsche and, while she had no experience working with cars, she was able to apply other skills and experience to the project, and use the opportunity to learn about logistics.
“My strength is organisation,” she told UNHCR. “I’m good at that. I never dreamt I’d end up working with cars. But I thought, ‘I’ve got this chance, what can I do to use it?’.”
Alber Echanaa arrived in Australia as a humanitarian entrant from Syria in 2017 and faced the same hurdles to finding work that almost all those in his situation encounter.
Echanaa had no local professional network or experience and lacked formal validation of his studies at Damascus University, where he finished third in his class with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
He took part in a five-day pre-employment training program with CareerSeekers, then completed a 12-week paid internship at Lendlease in June 2017, during which he took the opportunity to demonstrate his skills and experience.
His internship was initially extended and then he was offered a permanent role and is currently a member of the Digital Engineering team at Lendlease. As one of CareerSeekers’ business partners, Lendlease was able to decide what type of engineering role Echanaa could take on according to its business needs and his specific expertise.
Members of Lendlease’s leadership team can also provide informed advice to their interns about the next steps they should take if they are keen to obtain formal qualifications recognition.
Creating employment pathways for refugees is not only a philanthropic exercise; it can provide tangible benefits for organisations.
In an industry such as engineering, there is a lack of skilled engineers to carry out the high number of infrastructure projects on the east coast of Australia. Humanitarian entrants represent an untapped talent pool that can help fill these gaps.
Germany has faced a similar talent problem. While its economy has grown its population has, until recently, been in decline. The Chamber of Industry and Commerce recently found that 60 per cent of companies say their biggest problem is finding skilled workers.
Software company SAP has found that leveraging the skills of refugees is a valuable way of meeting this challenge. The organisation currently has 150 people in its refugee program, many of whom will be offered employment at SAP, while others will be able to use the local connections they have made to find work elsewhere.
Nico Herzberg, head of vocational training at SAP’s Dresden office, ackowledges that language barriers and skills gaps can be challenging, but believes that the value that refugees can bring to the company makes the investment worthwhile.
“What we have to do — and what many institutions are doing right now — is to fill this [language and skills] gap,” he recently told CNN Money.
In industries that may not have a skills shortage per se, such as marketing and public relations, employers benefit by being able to leverage the intangible assets humanitarian arrivals possess as a result of their lived experiences.
“I think that the life experiences these individuals bring to the table is something your average candidate from Seek isn’t going to come up with. You simply can’t train the resilience these individuals possess,” says Combs.
“In Australia, we sometimes make a big deal out of things that aren’t all that important. Whereas due to the lived experience many of these individuals have had, they don’t care if there’s no milk in the lunchroom refrigerator. They don’t care if there’s a restructure. They don’t care if you switch from having a dedicated office to hotdesking,” says Combs.
Businesses that invest in refugees also benefit from having employees who are deeply grateful for the professional opportunity and are loyal to the company as a result.
“When you lose everything and you arrive in a new country, and you’re living on the fringe of society both literally and figuratively, the motivation to get your life back on track, to get your kids into school and eventually get them into tertiary education, is like nothing you can describe,” says Combs.
“And the level of gratitude for the financial stability a job provides translates into loyalty. They never forget who gave them their first job. And that is what stops the attrition in industries where Australian employees are jumping ship for an extra five or 10 grand a year.”
Beyond leveraging the skills of a new, qualified talent pool, fostering a more diverse workplace leads to greater innovation and creativity.
“Many companies want to reap the benefits of having a diverse workforce but don’t know how to go about it. Internship programs for humanitarian arrivals become that connection point between such companies and refugees who are tertiary-qualified and have had a successful career, but struggle to connect with the profession they left in their home country,” says Combs.
These programs can also provide a means of fulfilling corporate social responsibility programs while at the same time contributing to an improved work environment for all employees.
“We’ve got so many qualified, talented refugees in Australia,” says Combs. “And nowadays people expect more from corporations than just paying a dividend to ‘mum and dad shareholders’. They expect companies to play a role in helping to weave the fabric of society.”
Aside from qualifications and a local network, there are cultural and logistical factors that can impede the ability of many refugees to gain and retain employment.
Language is also often cited as one of the primary barriers to employment.
“One of the big challenges towards successful integration into the labour market remains language,” OECD/UNHCR research has found. “This relates both to speaking the national language and knowing the terminology used in the sector, the job and the role the refugee or asylum seeker is expected to fill.”
Language training is particularly effective when it is provided in a workplace environment and combined with training in local workplace norms.
“Cultural norms in relation to gaining access to the labour market (e.g. job application, the interview process, etc.) and maintaining work relationships more broadly are critical and need to be addressed,” the OECD/UNHCR research argues. “Hence, a comprehensive approach is required to ensure that appropriate language and cultural orientation is provided from the outset.”
An effective approach to training in both job-seeking and cultural norms is just as essential as language training, and the involvement of the private sector ensures that this is not a theoretical exercise. CareerSeekers addresses both aspects through the Internship Preparation Program, a week of workshops and panel discussions about restarting a professional career in Australia. Facilitators include hirers, managers and managing directors from Australian firms, who provide potential interns with a clear idea of the skills that their organisations look for and an introduction to the environment in which their teams work.
In Australia, many refugees come from the Middle East, where work structures are rigidly hierarchical, says CareerSeekers Program Director Lynn Anderson.
“We explore the differences between a hierarchical structure and a flat structure, the latter being the model most organisations adopt in Australia,” Anderson explains. “We stress the importance of being able to build a rapport with not just colleagues, but your manager and your manager’s manager. All of those things are expected in Australia, whereas our participants may previously have had very little engagement with their manager once-removed, or even their direct manager.”
The Internship Preparation Program includes workplace scenario sessions, using real-life examples to teach participants about what to expect in an Australian workplace.
A colleague asks you to go for a coffee but you don’t drink coffee. What do you do? What do you do when you wake up with a headache before work?
“A lot of the program is scenario-based learning, where we unpack situations that previous participants have actually gone through during their internships,” says Anderson. “We reflect on whether they handled it well or if they could have handled it differently. It gives participants a real sense of what it’s like to work in Australia.”
There’s no doubt that there is a pressing global challenge: to provide adequate and fast-tracked pathways to employment for humanitarian arrivals. Clearly, too, the right to work is far from the final hurdle. Ultimately, one powerful solution lies with employers addressing skills shortages and a lack of diversity, by providing opportunities for humanitarian arrivals with the chance to prove themselves and the tools to become valuable team-members.
The right training, even for those who complete an internship that doesn’t lead to a job offer, is still valuable – they come away with a professional reference, local work experience, knowledge of Australian workplace norms and connection with a local network.
“These are the four things that jobseekers need,” says Anderson. “In many instances, lacking these stops a humanitarian arrival from getting a job.”