Underutilised talent

Highly qualified refugees face “impenetrable” barriers to employment

04 Apr 2018

By Dimitria Groutsis University of Sydney Business School

Research conducted by:
Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis, University of Sydney Business School
Professor Carol Reid, Western Sydney University
Professor Jock Collins, UTS Business School

Many of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees recently resettled in Australia are struggling to find employment because their vocational and tertiary qualifications are not recognised in this country.

It is no secret that newly arrived migrants and refugees often struggle to gain access to the destination country’s labour market. However, the difficulties experienced by those with skills, qualifications and prior vocational experience are often made greater and more complex by nature of the qualifications accreditation process and the challenge of proving that vocational experience acquired overseas is relevant. Recruitment agency representatives, Human Resource managers and employers chorus the requirement for local experience in order to open the gates to Australian jobs.
This “Catch 22” scenario, results in the underutilisation or undervaluation of the skills and qualifications which newly arrived migrants and refugees bring to the Australian labour market, while simultaneously prolonging the challenges around social engagement and settlement. For refugees the challenges are compounded by missing paperwork and acute feelings of displacement at very least, and torture and trauma at worst.
The recent Syrian and Iraqi conflict refugee intake is an illustrative example of the need to broaden our discussion on what has become a default position for labour market gatekeepers when it comes to evaluating the potential of overseas qualified and vocationally experienced refugees. While almost 50% of Syrian conflict refugees have tertiary qualifications (UNHCR 2015) and many are sponsored by family in Australia, difficult and impenetrable pathways into employment are features of their experience. Typically, the Australian experience for refugees has been one of long delays in accessing employment: 90% of the refugees surveyed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (2016) failed to find a job within 3-6 months of settling in Australia. Only 17% of refugees are in employment after 18 months according to the Settling Better report released last year.
A combined Universities team have so far interviewed a small sample of people as part of a much larger study investigating the experience of 200 Syrian and Iraqi conflict refugee families over three years. In-depth interviews with 20 families and 15 stakeholder representatives assisting these families with settlement and employment across NSW, Victoria and Queensland, highlights the difficulties experienced by this newly arrived group. Armed with skills, qualifications and experience, the heads of households we have spoken with have emphasised their desire for swift access into the Australian labour market. Notably, while they want work, they also want to utilise their prior knowledge but they are constantly told they have no ‘local experience’. There has also been a chorus of doubt about gaining work to match their skills with many of our interviewees noting that they are all too often presented with ‘any employment’ – even if it isn’t in a related field or commensurate position, the inference being that any work is better than no work.
Challenging this conundrum is a program which has been conceived and developed in Queensland and implemented in organisations across the state with striking results. Work and Welcome 500 is the brainchild of Multicultural Development Australia (MDA), one of the largest multicultural agencies providing assistance aimed at refugees and asylum seekers, migrants, and international students in metropolitan, rural and regional communities in Brisbane, Toowoomba, Nundah and Rockhampton.
Work and Welcome 500 was introduced in 2015 with the support of thee Queensland Government, the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland, and Queensland’s Council of Unions with express focus on the incoming cohort of Syrian and Iraqi conflict refugees. The program is premised on organisations providing funding for a 12-week work experience placement program. Work promoting the program since its inception has seen the initiative growing annually toward the goal of 500 sponsoring organisations.
The ambitious program has had very positive results. While not all placements are a direct match of skills, qualifications and prior work experience, efforts are made to match prior knowledge to the placement. The results of the program as described by a representative from a large public-sector organisation are extremely impressive. Not only have unit managers gained access to great work-based skills and qualifications but the refugees themselves have gained local experience and a vast majority have gone on to continuing employment at the location of their placement.
It is time to create alternatives to this long running problem. We want new migrants to integrate and contribute, yet we do little to acknowledge what they bring in a practical and inclusive way in our labour market. While we cannot put an end to forced migration we can change lives with programs such as Work and Welcome.
Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis, University of Sydney Business School
Professor Carol Reid, Western Sydney University
Professor Jock Collins, UTS Business School

First published in University of Sydney Business School

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