Nirary Dacho had a master’s degree and eight years of IT experience when he arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2015. “I spent six months applying for jobs, but I couldn’t get anything because I didn’t have local experience,” he said.
It was only after he was profiled on Lateline, a current affairs program, that the dam broke. “I was lucky,” Dacho said. “But there are hundreds of refugees struggling to find jobs who have even more skills than me.”
A few months later, he launched a social enterprise, Refugee Talent, to help other refugees in the same situation. It aims to address a key problem with government programs focused on basic integration challenges like language: that they neglect the soft skills and cultural differences that can be an even bigger barrier to finding work.
If such hurdles can be overcome, the potential gains are significant. “The government gives 160,000 visas each year for skilled migration to Australia,” Dacho said. “Companies want to hire people with these skills. But these refugees are hidden talent.”
Settlement services rarely deal with soft skills
Governments are increasingly familiar with the most urgent things that need to be done for newly-arrived refugees. Language teaching is widely available. Those with skilled qualifications are often able to get these recognised in their new home.
But employers are often reluctant to hire people who don’t have experience working in their country. Many businesses don’t understand what kinds of work refugees are allowed to do, according to Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, and worry about how the new arrivals will fit into the workplace.
“Language is definitely an issue, but there’s also this broad category of cultural differences, with a population that is foreign and may have different practices,” Maltz said. A recent study found that just 16% of refugees in Australia are employed a year after their arrival. The rate was only 30% even for those who spoke very good English.
It’s those broader cultural differences that Refugee Talent tries to address. In different countries, different behaviour is expected in job interviews, for example.
Refugees can be tripped up by anything, from not knowing the best way to describe past work experience to wondering whether they should shake hands, or who with. Refugee Talent provides one-on-one interview coaching to help refugees seeking work tackle these cultural barriers.
Work to help refugees into employment often falls into the gaps between different service providers. Refugee agencies, Dacho said, have limited experience dealing with employers. Recruitment services who are paid when they set up successful placements often prefer not to work with vulnerable people who are harder to match with work.
Mustafa Alio, founder of the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project (RCJP) in Canada, agreed. Before the RCJP, he said, refugees in Canada had to look either to refugee service providers with a small employment unit or to employment agencies with no specialisation for refugees.
Playing both sides
To fill this niche, organisations like Alio and Dacho’s have to fulfil a dual role.
“It’s a fundamental element in our service to do social work,” Dacho said. “There’s no way you can deal with these people otherwise. They have great experience, but they have suffered a lot at home, and it’s a different culture.” Even discussing previous jobs can be difficult for refugees who have endured trauma, and ordinary recruitment agencies lack the experience to deal sensitively with these issues.
At the same time, refugee candidates need a group that can credibly represent them to businesses. Refugee Talent has developed an online platform which anonymises résumés and allows employers to search for qualified candidates. The system is popular among employers trying to reduce the role of unconscious bias in their hiring.
The technology allows Refugee Talent to serve refugees across Australia, where longer-running service providers are usually confined to a single city or state. There are about 2000 refugee candidates currently on Refugee Talent’s platform, and the group has partnered with 300 businesses since its launch in February 2016.
Alio’s RCJP in Canada has a similar dual function. The group works with refugees to help them find potential areas of employment, and negotiate the maze of government-supported services to prepare them for employment. But it also works with businesses and employment agencies to identify how existing programs may need to be tweaked for refugees’ specific needs.
“In Canada there are a lot of businesses that are open to employing refugees, they like the idea,” Alio said. “For us it’s about convincing them to approach recruitment in tailored ways that make that possible.” That can mean, for example, being more open to interviewing candidates whose experience is not an exact fit for the position but could still be relevant.
This kind of service has been neglected, even as governments pour money into integration efforts. “There are hundreds of organisations doing English language, hundreds doing settlement services,” Dacho said. A stronger focus on employment could allow coaching, pre-employment training and job matching to be handled by separate, specialised groups, he suggested.
That kind of support is key to helping refugees find an entry point — and much more reliable than hoping for a TV appearance. — Fergus Peace
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