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July 22, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- In Peru, Ines Gonzalez-Lehman directed a 14-person marketing team at a high-tech firm. After marrying an American and immigrating legally to the U.S., she found herself making copies and answering phones at the bottom of the corporate ladder.
The immigration reform bill that recently failed in the Senate would have increased the number of visas for highly educated workers. But there remain tens of thousands of skilled immigrants such as Gonzalez-Lehman who are here and authorized to work, but stuck in jobs where their experience is wasted.
Learning how their industry works in the United States, finding out about openings, talking up their assets in a way that appeals to an American employer -- those steps, simple to someone educated in the United States, can block the path between a newcomer and work she is well trained to perform.
JP Morgan Chase & Co. is among the dozens of companies seeking trained immigrants already in the United States through Upwardly Global, a San Francisco nonprofit placement agency.
The organization, which also has a New York office, is unusual among immigrant advocacy groups in that it focuses solely on well-educated documented immigrants, sharpening their ability to market themselves and connecting them with employers interested in their skills.
Executive director Jane Leu says big hurdles are English fluency and what she calls the perception problem.
But the biggest challenge is connecting the newcomer to the American job search system and workplace culture.
Alcides Hernandez also went from well-connected professional at the top of his field to floundering newcomer without a toehold in a foreign land.
He left a management and research job at El Salvador's largest utility company to be with his wife, whom he met while vacationing in California. He assumed his degrees in industrial engineering, his MBA and his experience setting national price structures for electrical rates in his home country would land him a suitable job.
Instead, Hernandez supported his new wife and baby by juggling gigs as an electrician's helper, a teller at a courier company and, on weekends, a wedding videographer. He went to job fairs but got no calls back.
"That was one of the most difficult years of my life," he said of 2002, the year he moved to the United States. "I had this education. I'd worked hard, moved up. But here I was so far from my goal."
Eventually a day laborer center passed him the number for Upwardly Global.
Leu connected him with a mentor at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. who taught him the jargon and structure of the U.S. utilities industry. Staff helped him shorten and sharpen his pages-long résumé. Leu ran him through half-dozen mock interviews, grilling him in cafes and over the phone.
When Hernandez landed an interview for a job as an electric rate analyst for the city of Roseville, he knew the industry and its regulations. He knew the terminology. And the modest, soft-spoken Hernandez could project the can-do attitude that would hook his prospective employers.
The day he got the job was one of his happiest since he arrived, he said. "I'm part of this professional world again."
For immigrants like Hernandez, having a job that fits their qualifications involves more than getting a paycheck.
Hernandez owns his home, completed a second MBA and has just earned his citizenship.
"This was what I'd dreamed of," he said. "Now I really feel I am part of this country."