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How one organization is helping skilled Afghan refugees

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How one organization is helping skilled Afghan refugees

Refugees learning new job skills at an Upwardly Global program in America.

This article was originally published by Stand Together Trust.

Upwardly Global's mission for more than two decades has been to eliminate employment barriers for skilled immigrant and refugee professionals and to bring their skills into the U.S. economy. They have done this work through a blended service delivery model, combining their proven job readiness training with industry-specific career pathways coaching and work with employers to help shift hiring practices.

And their efforts have paid off. They've already worked with more than 18,000 internationally-trained professionals with the goal of moving them out of underemployment and into skill-aligned, professional roles in top industries like tech and healthcare. Today, the average salary of job seekers that Upwardly Global works with is $67,000 – considered a family supporting wage. Moreover, Upwardly Global has worked with more than 150 U.S. employers to help drive immigrant and refugee hiring and workforce inclusion. 

Now, with the help of Stand Together Trust's support, Upwardly Global is building on its existing digital capabilities and developing new, innovative tools customized for the growing population of refugee and immigrant job seekers in the United States, including Afghan refugees who fled their country after the Taliban regained power last August. 

Stand Together Trust spoke to Jennie Murray, Vice President of Programs for Upwardly Global, to find out more about how this platform is transforming lives.

Stand Together Trust: What prompted you to create a digital platform specifically for Afghan refugees? 

Murray: We actually started this customization in response to COVID because we knew that lots of people would be reengaging in the workforce. And then when we launched our Afghan response efforts, we immediately pivoted some of those resources and customized them for the Afghan population to develop the Afghan Rapid Response Portal. We have been working with Afghan professionals, including Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders, for the last 10 years. We've served over 1,000 of them, so we knew what we needed to have on that portal very quickly.  

What was needed?  

Most of the people we help come with technical backgrounds and expertise. What they need is that cultural piece, the soft skills, to be able to do a U.S-style professional job search, to get an interview, to negotiate a job offer, and to integrate into the workforce. We provide an online, self-paced training we created specifically for immigrant and refugee professionals, including different modules for job readiness. And then we match job seekers to a coach aligned to their industry. Job seekers may also be connected to a mentor, a working professional, who is from their industry and can help them navigate their intended career pathway. And then lastly, we connect them with employers from our network of corporate partners that are looking to hire. 

What specifically does the portal offer? 

Our free online resources include virtual training videos and guides on critical skills and cultural norms needed to effectively navigate a job search in the U.S. It is a great way for individuals across skill levels to kick off their career development in their new home. They emerge with a strong understanding of U.S. workplace norms, culture and communication, an American-style resume, interview skills, and licensing requirements.

We also tackle a lot of the cultural nuance pieces, like what to expect when a recruiter asks you a question about yourself as an individual. Many folks come from collective cultures and perceive speaking about their personal accomplishments as bragging. And we train employers around the unique value-add of immigrant and refugee talent and how best to dismantle barriers on the recruiting and hiring side that prevent newcomers from being hired.

How successful has it been? 

We've already had over 3,500 people use the public portal. We have also enrolled 1,400 Afghan newcomers in our direct service program, each of them receiving one-on-one career pathways coaching support. We're really excited about the momentum and our success. We have achieved 125 placements through our direct service program in just a few months with an average salary of over $68,000. Most of these individuals were earning $2,000 or less when they entered the program. It's really life changing and helps them stabilize the entire family. They are also placing in high-demand industries like tech, engineering, logistics, and operations, so they are an incredible infusion of diverse talent for employers with immense hiring needs.

What are some of the specific challenges for Afghan refugees? 

We noticed that while proficiency and technical skills in this population can be high, sometimes digital literacy is a little bit lacking. So we have started to offer some digital literacy training in addition to skilling opportunities, including with partners Microsoft, Google, Coursera and Udemy.

What's surprised you about this population? 

We say people will be in our program for a range of six months to 18 months, but we've been trending much faster with Afghan newcomers. We've had over 70 percent completing the program within 12 months.

Tell us about some of your best success stories.

We have a financial analyst who arrived in late August as an evacuee who worked with USAID. She joined the program in October and just landed a financial planning position that pays $90,000 a year. We helped place an evacuee who worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into a quality control manager position for $70,000 a year. Another evacuee who worked alongside the U.S. military/Civil Service Commission as an interpreter is now working as an accountant for $55,000 a year. And we've hired five Afghan newcomers as coaches for our program. They really understand the culture and how to market these individuals and translate their stories. 

What's next for the platform?

Right now, we're creating an employer-facing module right where employers can access training targeting more inclusive recruitment, hiring and workplace practices. We're also starting to work with a couple of Artificial Intelligence experts to create a labor market matching tool. We want to take the genius of AI and customize it based on what we know about the unique barriers faced by this population. I can't tell you how many people ask me why we have so much hiring going on, so much demand, and somehow people still can't connect with positions. Automation is great but algorithms can also be exclusionary to non-traditional candidates. We want to make one of those tools and really build it to recognize the unique skills, talent and value-add of this population. 

Upwardly Global is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems.

Learn more about Stand Together's immigration efforts, and explore ways you can partner with us.

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