Khaled Turkmani fled Syria and traveled through five countries before he ended up in San Francisco. He immediately began to look for work in the technology industry.
Despite his degree in computer science, Turkmani spent nine months working at “survival jobs” - selling shoes and assembling furniture. He also worked as a web site developer earning $10 an hour, a job he says typically pays U.S. workers $50 an hour.
“It was super painful,” he said. “But for me, work is work.”
Turkmani, who has asylum, is lucky. He found a training program called Upwardly Global, a non-profit that teaches skilled immigrants and refugees how to search for their first professional jobs in the United States.
At the organization, Turkmani learned about networking, America-style, and is now an IT manager.
“The job won’t come to you and say, ‘Take me,’” he said. “You have to search for it.”
For new immigrants to the United States, the first few years are often a struggle, even for those who have university degrees and years of experience in professional careers. According to one report, more than a million college-educated immigrants in the United States work in low-skilled jobs.
These immigrants are often overlooked in the political debate about immigrants in the United States who lack the proper work authorization, as well as tech companies seeking temporary work visas so that skilled workers can be brought to the United States. These immigrants, who have work authorization, often comprise an untapped talent pool within the community, says Upwardly Global.
The need to learn English is part of the problem for many new arrivals, but also, the way people get jobs in the United States is often different than in other countries, a gap that Upwardly Global works to bridge. Founded in 2000, with offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington, the organization serves immigrants, with college degrees or higher, who have authorization to work in the United States.
The organization says it has placed 4,700 people into their careers. In the San Francisco Bay Area, participants’ salaries jump $52,000 on average after completing the training and finding a professional position.
At a recent job fair focused on people with technical skills, immigrants and refugees from countries including Russia, Iran and Eritrea, met with 10 potential employers such as Yelp and TaskRabbit.
Ivan Vislov, a Russian immigrant attending the event with his wife, expected tech jobs would be easy to find when they arrived in California's technology corridor known as Silicon Valley. They were IT professionals coming to a region eager for qualified, talented workers, after all.
The reality is he has had to brush up on his English, and he has a mentor, who can give him quick advice on his resumes and how to network.
In fact, there are many small things newcomers to the United States have to learn about searching for jobs, said Emmanuel Imah, a graduate of Upwardly Global and now the head of the organization’s alumni network. He came from Nigeria.
For one thing, curriculum vitae in other countries tend to have a long list of duties, he said. In the United States a resume is typically no more than two pages long and is a document of a person’s accomplishments.
Also, a strong handshake and looking a potential employer in the eye, which in some other cultures may be seen as disrespectful, are key in the United States.
“Here in the United States, you are expected to look directly into someone’s eyes,” he said. “And when you meet someone, you have to give them a firm handshake. All those show confidence.”
At the end of the job fair, having handed out his resume and shaken many hands, Vislov said he planned to follow up with employers. And in the weeks ahead, he would attend hackathons and job fairs, doing what it takes to find that first U.S. professional job.