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Refugees have become the subject of a national political debate here in the U.S. But in the business world, refugees are often seen as sources of professional skills. That's the view of Upwardly Global, an organization that finds talented refugees and immigrants in general and helps them navigate the American job market. NPR's Deborah Amos starts the story in New York.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm sitting in a conference room, the setting for a training session for more than a dozen job seekers. They'll spend their dinner hours practicing job interviews. Alecia McMahon runs these workshops. She slides boxes of hot pizza down the table.
ALECIA MCMAHON: OK, we'll just spread these out family style, so you guys feel free to grab a bunch if you want.
AMOS: McMahon also coordinates the volunteers here. They're working professionals, and they run the mock job interviews. They also offer practical advice on resumes, how to sell yourself to a prospective employer, even how to shake hands, that American firm grip often surprising to newcomers.
MCMAHON: Really do help yourself because we have a lot of pizza (laughter).
AMOS: About one-third of refugees have college educations, and college degrees are increasingly common among immigrants overall. But they often end up at low-end jobs, so every professional job placement is celebrated, McMahon tells them.
MCMAHON: So every single time a job seeker at Upwardly Global is placed into their first U.S. position, we ring the bell.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
AMOS: Over the past decade, that bell has rung a lot, says Nicole Cicerani. She's the executive director.
NICOLE CICERANI: We have successfully placed now some 3,700 into their first professional position, average starting salary somewhere between $45,000 and $50,000.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Round of applause for Renata - a little early, so...
AMOS: One more placement for Renata, a woman who's been coming to the workshop for weeks. Still, for refugees, there are barriers to professional employment. There's gaps in their resumes, work histories disrupted by years in a refugee camp, missing college records left behind in the rush from a war zone. So Upwardly Global identifies talent for private companies looking for skilled workers, big names from the Fortune 500 like Wells Fargo and Accenture.
CICERANI: In all of our employer partnerships, nobody has agreed to hire our candidate. They agree to interview them, and they hire them because they wind up being the best candidate for the job. And that's really something when you think about it, which is, the top candidate was somebody who was working as a hot dog stand vendor six months prior.
AMOS: It's a common story - the taxi driver who was a surgeon back home. The Migration Policy Institute in Washington calls it brain waste. The institute's president, Michael Fix, says it represents a huge loss to the U.S. economy in squandered potential.
MICHAEL FIX: They lost $40 billion a year or about the same amount as the entire profit of the airline industry.
AMOS: Upwardly Global is breaking some of the barriers, says Margie McHugh, also with the institute.
MARGIE MCHUGH: They were the first to map profession by profession what were the training and licensing requirements to being recognized, for example, as a pharmacist or a dentist or a doctor. They not only saw that there was a problem. They rolled up their sleeves to begin addressing it.
AMOS: One success is Almothana Alhamoud, a Syrian refugee who resettled in Chicago with his family two years ago. Over a traditional family meal, he tells me that after college graduation, he was a data analyst in Syria, a career cut short by the war.
ALMOTHANA ALHAMOUD: When I came over here, I just wanted to find anything just to survive. I was working as a cashier for night shift. It was cold, and it was, like, the worst winter I ever seen in my life (laughter). So yeah, I was struggling there.
AMOS: After more than a year of job workshops, he learned to sell his skills, landed a high-tech position in Chicago and quit his job as a night-shift cashier.
So this idea of selling yourself - was that hard?
ALHAMOUD: (Laughter) To learn how to sell yourself, is, like, the hard part. Like, this is, like, the cultural thing here or, like, the work culture thing here.
AMOS: Now he says he has plans to spend his night shift as a student again for an advanced American degree. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Chicago.
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