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Immigrants coming to the United States today hold more degrees than ever before—a seemingly fortuitous trend as the U.S. experiences a growing demand for highly skilled workers. Yet their talent is largely overlooked.

Sujan, a television producer in Nepal, worked at a donut shop when he first moved to Chicago. Khalid, a talented computer programmer who fled Syria for the Bay Area, sent out 500 resumes with only a couple interviews. Nearly 2 million fellow college-educated immigrants and refugees in the U.S. like Sujan and Khalid are unemployed or underemployed, estimates the Migration Policy Institute.

For the past two decades, one organization has worked to bridge this gap between skilled immigrants and the professional workforce in the United States. Upwardly Global helps thousands of work-authorized immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and green card holders rebuild their careers, while enabling employers to access a diverse talent pool through diversity partnerships, consultations and candidate matching.

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Photo courtesy of Upwardly Global

“It's an incredible waste of talent," says Rebecca Tancredi, VP of Programs for Upwardly Global. "The U.S. can't really afford not to take advantage of the engineers, software developers, doctors and more who are bringing their skills here."

The Untapped Talent Pool

As American employers seek to fill positions in technology, engineering, finance and the like, the growing population of skilled immigrants is a natural fit. According to a Pew study of census data, 41 percent of immigrants who entered between 2011 and 2015 hold a bachelor's degree, 18 percent hold an advanced degree, and more than half come from managerial, professional, technical, sales and administrative support backgrounds.

“There's a terrific alignment between the skills needed by US employers and the skills our job seekers bring," says Tancredi. Sixty percent of Upwardly Global's placements are in technology, engineering, finance, accounting and healthcare, all fields in high demand by employers.

Immigrant employees also bring valuable perspective as the U.S. looks to compete in the world economy. Companies want their internal workforce to reflect their global values and missions. “Employers want people who are familiar with how business is done in other parts of the world, and are culturally and linguistically fluent," says Tancredi.

Developing New Perspectives

If immigrants offer such a rich talent pool, why haven't more employers taken notice? For many potential applicants, the gap stems from a cultural misunderstanding of the American job-seeking process. Upwardly Global helps familiarize applicants with new cultural norms through resume and interview workshops, in which job seekers become comfortable with eye contact or discussing individual accomplishments—actions that are often seen as disrespectful in their native countries. The organization also helps connect employers with pre-screened candidates for in-demand positions, along with pairing volunteers from partner companies with applicants for one-on-one assistance.

Part of the organization's offering is training participants in the various facets of the modern job search - things like resume development, cover letter writing, interview skills and salary negotiation. Upwardly Global has relied on an Impact Grant from the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation to help build out their delivery of online training resources for job searchers.

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Photo courtesy of Upwardly Global

From the other side of the desk, employers should actively train themselves to recognize cultural differences in order to hone in on a job seeker's strengths. “I always say, 'Don't miss out on talent because of a cultural misunderstanding,'" Tancredi explains. To that end, Upwardly Global's workshops and other resources help employers to reconsider attributes that may initially be perceived as weaknesses.

“We help employers understand that if people are from a more collective culture, they're going to naturally talk about their team before they talk about themselves," Tancredi says. “If you as the interviewer don't take that to mean that they didn't lead, and you ask more probing questions, you'll find out what you need to know."

Bridging the Gap

Upwardly Global hopes that through exposure, more employers will be compelled to explore immigrant talent pools. “Exposure does create change in how employers interview," says Tancredi. "If they're interacting with skilled immigrants, they'll see the value in that population."

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Photo courtesy of Upwardly Global.

To further access the talent pool, employers should also acknowledge any biases, however unintentional, that they might hold. HR professionals often incorrectly assume they need to sponsor refugees who are already legally authorized to work in the U.S., and applicant screening and tracking systems unintentionally weed out resumes with employment gaps, or foreign schools and countries not in their drop-down menus. “Once you understand the context, though, it's not a red flag at all," Tancredi says.

Upwardly Global expects to help roughly 1,000 immigrants and refugees secure jobs this year, with over a 90% retention rate after one year on the job. Tancredi has witnessed skepticism about an immigrant applicant's credentials transform into enthusiasm at several organizations: “When you sit across from them, you realize this person could work here—and make a really valuable contribution."

All photos:  Upwardly Global