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Highly skilled immigrants reclaim careers in Idaho

Note: A version of this article was originally published on March 30, 2015.

Author: Tashina Fleming

Highly skilled immigrants reclaim careers in Idaho

Nearly two years ago, Shwan Al Jaf moved his family from their native home of Iraq to Boise, ID. Al Jaf described the years prior to this move as being like a mouse within his own country.

“I was unable to buy a descent car, unable to buy a nice house because it would attract attention,” Al Jaf recalled. “I was unable to talk to my friends or make more friends. I was unable to be in public because I would be targeted”

Al Jaf experienced danger in his native country after becoming a highly skilled member of Iraqi society. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering while in Iraq and began a professional career in 2000, initially working for the Department of Water.

Conflicts in the country forced Al Jaf to move his family several times until he began working for the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, where he managed a team of 50 others and worked with several American colleagues.

However, Al Jaf’s high profile vocation became increasingly dangerous for not only himself, but also for his growing family. Iraqis working for foreign companies are easy targets for armed groups who use kidnapped children as profit-making ventures.

“My son’s school was just down the road from my house, but I would rent a taxi for him, so he wouldn’t be alone or be kidnapped,” Al Jaf recalled.

Worried about his family’s safety, Al Jaf applied for refugee status abroad and settled in Boise during September 2013. Now, he is looking to reclaim his career.

Refugees reclaim careers through Global Talent Idaho     

Every year, approximately 1,000 refugees from over 45 different countries are resettled in Idaho, with one-third finding homes in Twin Falls and the rest settling in Boise. Many of these refugees have similar stories to Al Jaf, with 20 percent of the adult population qualifying as a highly skilled immigrants.

Between 80 and 100 refugees annually fit the description of a highly skilled refugee who has been forced to flee his or her own country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political affiliation or membership in a particular social group.

Lisa Cooper, co-founder and consultant for Global Talent Idaho, describes the move for highly skilled refugees as a forceful interruption of their career.

“Becoming a refugee disrupts livelihoods and careers — sometimes for months, others for many years and for some, permanently,” Cooper said.

Each year, these skilled immigrants arrive in Idaho with a variety of advanced degrees and successful, but interrupted, careers as teachers, engineers, doctors, nurses, scientists and accountants, among others.

Often times, highly skilled immigrants face challenges to employment within their original field and end up significantly underemployed in low wage placements, their skills and talents not utilized. Currently in Idaho, the average full-time employed refugee has a starting wage of $8.46 per hour.

Global Talent Idaho is a new workforce development initiative helping highly skilled immigrants reclaim their careers. The program enables them through mentors, local professional volunteers, workshops and events, aiding their successful assimilation to professional roles in Idaho.

Cooper acknowledged challenges for highly skilled immigrants are presented in a variety of forms. Beyond English language skills, highly skilled refugees must often work two or three jobs to support their families, which can impose a challenge on securing immediate employment. According to Cooper, one of the biggest challenges to employment for highly skilled refugees is the cultural difference.

She explained how, in many cultures, it is taboo to self promote during job interviews and resumes in other cultures often begin with family statistics at the top. This can pose big challenges for highly skilled refugees attempting to enter the United States workforce, which is heavily reliant on self-promotion in interviews.

Global Talent Idaho serves as a platform to reconnect highly skilled immigrants to careers by providing opportunities for resume writing, mock interviews and developing networking skills — things American employers value.

Highly skilled immigrants rebuild careers in Idaho

Global Talent Idaho was created last year and is still very new to the Treasure Valley. Over 60 highly skilled refugees are enrolled in the program, qualifying through the four requirements of having the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree, permanent authorization to work in the U.S., at least two years of professional work experience in their country of origin or elsewhere, as well as intermediate computer and English skills.

While in the program, refugees undergo a rigorous process of equivocating their original degrees to United States standards. Cooper noted the process is difficult and can take up to several years for degrees that require additional licenses and qualifications.

For an immigrant doctor, the process takes a minimum of four years, in which time they will be subject to a variety of difficult tests, must become re-licensed and complete a residency program.

Global Talent Idaho provides highly skilled immigrants resources for finding the correct path to reconnecting with their original careers. For some degrees, the process is less demanding, with some highly skilled immigrants using the program to equivocate their degree before entering the workforce.

For others, U.S. work experience is required, so the program works to place individuals in internships throughout the Treasure Valley. Al Jaf is currently in this phase of reconnecting with his career, as his 11 year engineering career “did not count” when moving to the United States.

Through Global Talent Idaho, he is currently working as an intern for Dairy Gold, which will help bolster his work experience.

Idaho prospers from highly skilled immigrant employees           

According to Cooper, returning highly skilled immigrants to their former careers, education and occupations is crucial because of the benefits they bring to Idaho’s economy and prosperity. Cooper explained how highly skilled workers bring global perspective, bilingual or trilingual advantages, unparalleled commitment and a new source of skilled professionals local employers are in need of.

Global Talent Idaho helps to retain these talented professionals as vital contributors to the state’s community and economy.

Still in the nascent stages, Global Talent Idaho is modeled after Upwardly Global — a program that has reconnected 2,500 skilled immigrants to their original careers. In 2014, the program has seen an average annual income gain per highly skilled worker of $40,000, something Cooper says brings multiple benefits to the community and worker alike.

“The monetary gain can’t be underestimated,” Cooper said. “This enables families to move out of poverty, to contribute their talents to the local economy, tax base, and for successful professionals to serve as role models for their communities.”

However, she emphasized how confidence gained by the individual is as equally important as the monetary gain.

“Individuals regain their professional identities and the dignity that’s too often been lost,” Cooper said.

Al Jaf cited a similar experience after being part of the program since last year.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” Al Jaf said.

However, the road is long for Al Jaf, as it is for many highly skilled refugees who must plan around family schedules and overcome challenges to employment. Currently Al Jaf plans to earn his master’s degree in hopes of becoming a professor at Boise State University or to further his career upon graduation — a process that can take upwards of three years. Al Jaf said he feels this effort is fully worth it though, and a necessity in reclaiming his career.


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