A great many immigrants drive cabs, wait tables, or perform other unskilled jobs. And many of them are a great deal better educated than you might expect.
“There are 1.3 million legal immigrants in the United States who have a college degree but are working in menial jobs, if they are working at all,” says Paula Restrepo, volunteer program manager at Upwardly Global, a nonprofit resource group dedicated to eliminating the barriers immigrant professionals from developing nations face when trying to enter the U.S. workforce (www.upwardlyglobal.org). “The average salary of those with a job is only $20,000.”
Restrepo is also a volunteer with the Greater Princeton Area SCORE and a loan officer at the Regional Business Assistance Corporation at 3111 Quakerbridge Road (www.rbacloan.com). She will present “How to Use Your Foreign Degree in the U.S.” on Tuesday, November 30, from 6:45 to 8:45 p.m., at the Princeton Public Library. The workshop is free. Call 609-924-9529.
“We don’t work with people from developed nations, such as France or the United Kingdom, because they don’t face the same hurdles as those from developing nations,” Restrepo says. “Our clients are from 103 countries. including Nigeria, the Congo, Algeria, Poland, Russia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, India, China, and Indonesia.”
Upwardly Global will work only with legal immigrants. The organization requires proper documentation to work here. “In their home country, our clients were business people, educators, scientists, journalists, and nonprofit professionals,” Restrepo says. “Here they work as nannies, cab drivers, and security guards.” They often arrive in the United States with high expectations because they are well-educated. They think they will quickly return to their chosen field.
But after many months of rejections, they find they are lacking the language and other skills needed to work as professionals in the United States. That’s where Upwardly Global can help. “Jobseekers who complete our program and are placed will, on average, see their pay double to about $40,000 — usually with benefits,” Restrepo says. “Without help, it can take up to 10 years for immigrants to gain the cultural competency and network they need to rebuild their careers. Some will languish on the margins of the working poor for the rest of their lives.”
Many immigrant professionals arrived at the United States as refugees. “They came here not because they wanted to but because their lives were in danger,” Restrepo explains. “One man, for instance, worked in Iraq for an American company. That alone was enough to put his life in danger. He sought asylum here but, once he arrived, no company wanted to hire him.”
Language barriers. The English language and American culture tend to be enormous obstacles for immigrants and refugees when seeking to return to a professional career. “In many cultures, it is not considered polite to look someone in the eyes during an interview,” Restrepo says. “In American culture, that can be interpreted as trying to hide something or not being honest. They don’t know what belongs on a resume or how to develop a network.”
Upwardly Global is not equipped to help immigrants learn English but will refer them to organizations that can. “We have some funding for ESL classes, but that’s not really what we do,” she says. “We mostly work with immigrants who already speak English.”
Instead, Upwardly Global addresses issues such as resume building, networking, interviewing skills, and job skills, with an emphasis on understanding the intricacies of American culture and customs. The training can last up to six months. The organization will try to pair jobseekers with mentors in their field and connect them to opportunities through Upwardly Global’s networks.
Partners. Upwardly Global partners with some Fortune 500 companies, such as JP Morgan Chase, Deloitte, and Standard & Poor, as well as numerous foundations, including the Robin Hood Foundation, the Weinberg Foundation, and New York Community Trust.
“We have placed about 30 people with JP Morgan Chase alone,” Restrepo says. “We had one man who was a CPA in Indonesia before immigrating here. He worked for four years as a barista at the Starbucks in New York’s Waldorf Astoria before he joined our program. We presented him to JP Morgan Chase, which hired him as an analyst. A year later, he was promoted to assistant vice president and then transferred to London.”
Like others who complete the organization’s training program, the Indonesian CPA mentored another jobseeker, who was also hired by JP Morgan Chase. “The market is full of immigrants for those companies looking to hire an international workforce,” Restrepo says. “These companies compete in the global marketplace and see value in hiring people who are from other countries.”
Other help. Upwardly Global succeeds in helping nearly half of its clients return to their original career. For others, the organization tries to help them transition to another career.
It can be harder for some jobseekers, such as doctors, veterinarians, and lawyers to return to their profession when licensing or passing the state bar is required. Upwardly Global helped a Colombian who worked as a lawyer with a major company before immigrating to the United States. She landed a job with a nonprofit organization, where she helps immigrants with needed legal documents and other related immigration issues. “She’s not a lawyer but she gets to use her legal background in her job,” Restrepo says.
“We had a couple from Peru,” Restrepo says. “They were agricultural engineers and were accustomed to working with agricultural companies. They had developed amazing sales skills. Now they are in banking, working with numbers — skills they had developed through their sales experience.”
An experienced professional and immigrant herself, Restrepo stumbled into working with Upwardly Global. She grew up in Colombia, where her father was a doctor while her mother ran an ice cream franchise.
“My dad discouraged me from pursuing a medical career because it was so complicated,” she says. “I would like to have studied music so I could sing opera. But in Colombia people go to college and study something that can help their career in many ways. I studied industrial engineering, which was a utilitarian choice. I was grateful that I had strong engineering skills.”
She graduated with a bachelor’s in industrial engineering from the National University of Colombia in 1999. She earned a master’s in international business management from University of Bogota in 2003. Restrepo became the general manager of a restaurant company and later also worked as a general manager of a roasted/ground coffee plant. She then became the strategy manager for a nonprofit organization dedicated to the pre-incubation and incubation of new technology companies.
An old boyfriend who had emigrated to the United States reconnected with Restrepo, who decided to join him and return to school. “I came to America for love,” she says. She arrived in the United States in 2004 and received a master’s in public administration in not-for-profit management and policy from NYU in 2008.
While at NYU, her advisor put her in touch with the national headquarters of Upwardly Global in San Francisco. She accepted their offer to help launch the organization’s New York office. And she and her boyfriend soon married.
“I was lucky in that I never had to struggle to find a job once I got here,” Restrepo says. “My husband and many of my classmates, however, weren’t so fortunate. I saw what they went through so I understand.”
Looking back on her career change, she says, “In the end, I decided engineering was not the career that I wanted. I wanted to work for a nonprofit organization and help people. I’ve discovered it’s my thing.”