The United States has grown through generations and descendants of immigrants. More than at any other point in history, those immigrating are more educated – 45 percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Yet, two million degreed and professionally experienced immigrants and refugees face a multitude of barriers that prevent them from applying their full potential in the United States. Since 1999, Upwardly Global (also known as UpGlo), a national nonprofit, has strived to fulfill its vision of an “equitable, welcoming country where everyone – including immigrants, refugees, and asylees – can fully contribute to our workforce and thrive.” Over 18,000 internationally trained professionals, with UpGlo’s support, have restarted their careers and are contributing their skills to the U.S. workforce.

“Immigrants and refugees have always been an important part of the U.S. cultural fabric and economy.  Toward Cisco’s purpose of powering an inclusive future for all, we are investing in UpGlo’s work to help integrate immigrants and refugee professionals into the U.S. workforce, to help them maximize their career potential, achieve financial security for themselves and their families, and contribute to economic growth in their communities and in cities across the country,” said Charu Adesnik, deputy director of the Cisco Foundation, and manager of the economic empowerment investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation.

To appreciate the immigrant experience and the opportunities to build an inclusive workforce, I met with Jennie Murray, VP of Programs at UpGlo, and Christian Etoundi Ekodo, an immigrant who benefited from UpGlo’s services.  Let’s first learn from Jennie.

What’s driving UpGlo’s mission?

Jennie: Incredible people come to the United States with their talent, life experiences, and skill sets in tow, but the U.S. workforce often presents several employment barriers. It’s UpGlo’s mission to eliminate those barriers, whether it’s helping job seekers with soft-skill training and job readiness navigation, influencing employer practices, or helping job providers understand how this talent pool can meet its resource needs.

Immigrants represent 13 percent of the U.S. population and close to 19% of the workforce. It’s an economic imperative to fully leverage their skills. Amid the COVID pandemic, the conversation is extending to how we rebuild economically while creating inclusion opportunities. Often, during recoveries, those who are already left out of any kind of system are further excluded when we rebuild. The demographics of the job seekers at UpGlo are 75 percent people of color, 50 percent women, and over 80 percent living below the federal poverty line, despite being highly educated and professionally experienced. We place dynamic talent in mid- to high-skilled positions, which is where diversity is traditionally lacking at companies.

The immigrants UpGlo serves typically earn $5,000 to $7,000 USD per year in their ‘survival job’ and the earnings grow to an average of $67,000 USD per year once they’ve been placed. This represents a strong economic and business impact, along with the enumerable culture and community value points that benefit us all.

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What barriers to employment do those immigrating face?

Jennie: A common barrier is overcoming gaps in employment. Gaps can be due to time in a refugee camp or awaiting asylum or work permit approval, but the passage of time can mean training lapses, so we engage partners to provide training opportunities and access to scholarships.

It’s through relationships and networks that 85% of people in the United States find jobs. So, we focus on relationship and network-building via online and in-person events and through communities of practice that allow industry experts to connect directly with our job seekers.

Cultural barriers also exist. For example, in some cultures, it is considered inappropriate to talk about oneself in the first person. Imagine in an interview, when an applicant only refers to “we” or “my team” versus “me or myself” that it may not be confidence-building for the interviewer. So, UpGlo focuses on cultural readiness and soft-skill awareness, including how to pare down a ten-page CV to a one-page U.S.-style resume, market yourself on LinkedIn, and prep for a screening call.

There can also be confusion about where to go and what to do, so job seekers often get stuck at different points along their journey. In some cases, they are told they need a U.S. academic institution on their resume to obtain a job, so they spend time obtaining another degree when they’ve already worked as a lawyer for 15 years in their home country.

What are some of the most in-demand sectors and job skills and how do they translate to the community UpGlo is serving?

Graphic showing metricsJennie: Last year, we aligned to five main sectors that are expecting growth now and, in the future, based on a labor market study. The sectors are IT, healthcare, finance, engineering, and business logistics (sales / marketing). Fortunately, 60 percent of our job seekers are directly aligned to those industries, and for those who aren’t, we built adjacent pathways and skilling opportunities so that we can funnel the majority through those five areas.

Our participants are network engineers and cybersecurity specialists at Fortune 100 technology companies, emergency room doctors at the most elite hospitals, architects of the nation’s most important infrastructure, and beyond. We normally serve about 1,800 people a year through our direct placement service, but with 2.9M job openings in the four locales we serve (Chicago; New York; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C.), there is no shortage of openings. Our opportunity is to increase our reach in matching the talent to the need.

What trends are you seeing in how organizations are removing barriers to employment?

Jennie: It’s estimated that 156,000 U.S. healthcare professionals have not been leveraged during the pandemic because their non-U.S. credentials are not valid. With the resourcing needs across hospitals soaring, we are seeing some organizations get creative to remove barriers for foreign-credentialed talent to serve.  Similarly, in the finance industry, some companies are forgoing the need for a CPA and are, instead, accepting those that have the foreign equivalent – ACCA.

A number of employers have launched “returnships” to give access to job seekers who have experienced a gap in employment due to the pandemic. This is serving also benefiting immigrant/refugee job seekers who have gaps due to their migration and personal circumstances.

How have Cisco and UpGlo partnered?

Jennie: Over the years, our partnering and resource-sharing relationship has grown. The goodness is the population UpGlo serves ties directly to Cisco’s purpose of powering an inclusive future for all. So, it’s a perfect partnering match where we leverage each other’s resources to help job seekers along the continuum.

With UpGlo’s opportunity to scale its impact beyond the 1,800 we help place each year, we partnered with Cisco to establish Jobversity, which is a learning management system that enables us to deliver our indirect services by digitally curating over 20 years of training content. The platform allows UpGlo to partner with states, municipalities, workforce development systems, community colleges, and others to ensure the combining of resources, such as ESL, digital literacy and counseling. We’re also able to track and analyze online learning progress so we can continue to advance curriculum, UX/UI design, and resource offerings.

Cisco has also offered the tremendous benefits of its Cisco Networking Academy program, which offers a vast array of courses in topics like digital literacy, cybersecurity, computer networking, and Internet of Things. Many Networking Academy courses prepare students to earn industry-recognized certifications.

A graphic showing the success of alumni
How Upward Globally transforms lives and the workforce

How can others support UpGlo’s mission?

Jennie: The lifeline of our impact is through volunteers; they play a critical role in supporting the success of our job seekers by conducting mock interviews, providing industry mentorship, reviewing LinkedIn profiles, and offering language coaching. There are numerous volunteering opportunities, and, as a nonprofit, donations go a long way.

Now, let’s hear from Christian Etoundi Ekodo’s experience as an immigrant who built his U.S. career through UpGlo’s support.

Where did your journey begin?

A young man wearing a bright shirt on a beach
Christian Etoundi Ekodo enjoying time off at Pleasant Beach in New Jersey

Christian: I was born in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon in Central Africa. While I’ve always had a passion for technology, there weren’t many opportunities to study and work in tech when I was growing up. So, I obtained my master’s degree in business development. My first job was working for the City of Yaoundé assisting the project manager with development programs, such as providing community access to water and rehabilitating schools.

What led you to immigrate to the United States?

Christian: I aspired for the ‘American dream,’ and I was fortunate to win the visa lottery. I was quite intrigued to discover a new culture, which is said to be a ‘melting pot’ of people from all over the world. In Cameroon, there’s a limited job market, so I looked to the United States as an opportunity for greater career paths. In the beginning, it was quite the culture clash. While I held a degree, it was not easy for me to find work. I had to push hard to obtain my first job at a gas station. It was a ‘survival’ job, and in no way was it making the most of what I could contribute.

Where are you now with your career?

Christian: I was most recently employed at the Newark, New Jersey airport, but with the pandemic and minimal travel, work was limited.  As an immigrant, if you don’t have a job, you feel useless, so I started to research opportunities online, and I came across UpGlo. My goal was to connect with others who shared a similar experience. Through the support I received, I was able to obtain my first IT job in tech support at Comcast. In this role, my skills are being leveraged, and I see growth and potential for my career. I’m working towards obtaining my Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), and my goal is to build a career in networking and cloud engineering, perhaps at Cisco one day.

In which ways have you benefited from UpGlo’s services?

Christian: When I think of my journey, I’m most proud that I never gave up. There were times when things were difficult and frustrating, and I worried I might need to return to Cameroon, but when I discovered UpGlo, it was the dawn of hope and filled me with resilience.

One of the greatest benefits was support in building my network. I saw LinkedIn as only a social media platform, but after UpGlo meet-up events, it served to connect me with my growing network. Through the support of my coach, I benefited from building psychological strength, and I’m much more confident and truly believe in the ‘yes, I can’ motto. I’m quite thankful to UpGlo for providing me with a scholarship to take a CCNA class. Obtaining this certification will certainly help me advance in my career.

In one word, UpGlo means ‘family’ because I discovered it during a time of difficult joblessness, and it sparked a sense of hope as to what could be possible.

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Toni Hayden

Solutions Orchestration Lead

People & Communities