When Almothana Alhamoud, a 31-year-old Syrian data analyst, arrived in Chicago two years ago after fleeing the Syrian war, he jumped at his first job offer, a nightshift cashier at a convenience store.
"When I came over here I just want to find anything to survive," he says over dinner with his family in Chicago. His parents and two sisters fled Damascus six months after he did. The family has applied for asylum in the U.S.
Alhamoud has a bachelor's degree in computer engineering. His career as a data analyst for Syria's Agriculture Ministry was cut short by the war. In job interviews in Chicago, he struggled with English and discovered his Syrian degree was not recognized. He feared he would have to get by in low-wage jobs.
"It was cold and it was the worst winter I ever seen in my life. I was struggling there," he says, now looking back.
According to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, nearly 1.5 million college-educated immigrants were employed in low-skilled jobs between 2009 and 2013. Nearly a third of refugees resettled in the U.S. in the past few years are college graduates.
It's a common story, the taxi driver who was a surgeon back home. The Migration Policy Institute researchers call it "brain waste."
The institute's president, Michael Fix says it represents a huge loss to the U.S. economy in squandered potential. These workers, he says, "lost 40 billion dollars a year, or about the same amount as the entire profit of the airline industry."
He adds that the increase in income would translate into nearly $10.2 billion more in federal, state and local taxes.
In Chicago, Alhamoud took note when a family friend posted an article about Upwardly Global on Facebook. It was his introduction to a nonprofit based in New York that helps immigrants and refugees rebuild their careers.
Alhamoud quickly signed up and went to job workshops in Upwardly Global's Chicago office. He was assigned a mentor, a volunteer, who helped him fine-tune his resume, and practice his interviewing skills. After seven months of workshops, Alhamoud found a job with Cox and Kings Global Service. He's an IT help desk support technician for a company that processes visas for the Indian consulate in Chicago.
"To learn to sell yourself, that's the hard part, it's the work culture thing here," he says. Now, he plans to spend his nightshift as a student, seeking an advanced American degree.
Over the past decade, Upwardly Global has successfully placed 3,700 applicants in their first professional positions, says executive director Nicole Cicerani.
"Average starting salary somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 dollars," she says.
Still, there are barriers to professional employment, especially for refugees.
There are gaps in resumes, work histories disrupted by years in a refugee camps, missing college records left behind in the chaotic rush to escape a war zone. So Upwardly Global identifies talent for private companies looking for skilled workers. Cicerani partners with big names from the Fortune 500, like Wells Fargo and Accenture.
"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," says Cicerani. "That's really something when you think about it – the top candidate was somebody who was working as a hot dog vendor six months prior."
Upwardly Global is breaking some of the barriers to professional employment says Margie McHugh, director of the Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Integration policy, the first to map profession by profession the training and licensing requirements for pharmacists, dentists and doctors.
Upwardly Global, she says, "not only saw that there was a problem, they rolled up their sleeves to begin addressing it."
U.S. business has started to recognize that immigrants and refugees are a talent pool. U.S. cities are also developing programs in recognition that economies can benefit from newcomers that bring entrepreneurial and professional skills.
St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh are starting to reach out. The Mosaic Project in St. Louis replicated the Upwardly Global model matching immigrants with skilled professionals to improve job opportunities.
While political leaders have described refugees as a threat and a burden, Cicerani insists this population is a talent pool. The motivation necessary to get through the refugee resettlement process, that can take years of interviews and security clearances, is the same motivation they bring to the workplace.
"We talk a lot about a physician from Iraq who was an orthopedic surgeon," says Cicerani, who worked as a hot dog vendor when he first arrived and now has a job in medical research.
She says that one more barrier is the American narrative for immigrants and refugees that "come to this country and sacrifice everything for the next generation," including their education.
"This is a postindustrial, skills-based economy and the idea is that we want people to do the jobs that we actually need in our economy," she says.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.