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How HR can support Afghans integrating into the workforce

Jina Krause-Vilmar
Jina Krause-Vilmar is the CEO and president of Upwardly Global, a national nonprofit whose mission is to eliminate employment barriers for immigrant and refugee professionals and advance the inclusion of their skills into the U.S. economy.

Recently, the Biden Administration estimated that about 65,000 Afghans would arrive in the U.S. by the end of September, with another 30,000 expected over the next 12 months after U.S. military forces withdrew from Afghanistan over the summer.

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With a refugee resettlement system in the U.S. trying to catch up with these refugees’ needs, and few resources for immigrant career preparation, Afghan immigrants and refugees face untold challenges in restarting their lives and careers in the U.S. Many individuals bring a cache of desirable skill sets and professional credentials, but more action must be taken by employers and their HR departments to integrate professionally trained and licensed refugees and foster a more inclusive workforce.

Untapped Potential

Who are these individuals and what types of experiences do they have? Many Afghans bring international credentials, high levels of English proficiency and experience supporting the U.S. military and allies. In 2021, there are as many as 5.5 million open jobs in cities in which Upwardly Global–a nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees resettle–has operations alone, many within sectors like healthcare, technology and engineering; these are areas that Afghans, and other immigrant groups, have immense and invaluable expertise in.

Historically, internationally trained professionals (ITPs) face barriers throughout the job search process, from recruitment and interviewing to onboarding and advancement. Despite having the impressive skills and work experiences that employers desire, ITPs are often overlooked due to language biases, misunderstandings of international degrees and credentials, the accessibility of relicensing processes and the availability of professional networks, among other challenges. And as a result, nearly 2 million immigrants with college degrees are unemployed or are working low-skilled jobs, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

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Resumes, for example, can often be overlooked by automated systems that don’t recognize international credentials and experience or intentionally disregarded and misunderstood by hiring leaders as having no value. A frequent experience we hear among our immigrant and refugee professionals is that their applications and inquiries for employment go unnoticed or unanswered.

Many newcomers also lack professional networks, which can stymie their professional advancement; in fact, 85% of jobs are secured through social networks, and “word of mouth” referrals are common practice. This also can be a challenge during the application submission and interview processes when an employer asks for professional references.

Moreover, the cultural norms and mechanisms in U.S. workplaces, like the use of eye contact or strategies of “storytelling” and self-promotion, coupled with language barriers and accents and the inability to identify tone during the interview process, can lead employers to falsely assume that candidates lack confidence, assertiveness or even employment readiness.

How Employers and Their HR Departments Help

By creating employment opportunities for our Afghan allies, and other immigrants and refugees who face similar setbacks, the workforce can play a vital role in addressing current labor shortages and contributing to a more inclusive economy. And while seemingly innocuous processes–like online application systems that don’t cater to international applicants–can discourage job seekers, they also present opportunities for employers and their HR departments to reevaluate outdated hiring systems and overcome biases to scout for non-traditional talent. This can include spearheading special hiring initiatives or processes such as paid job shadowing and returnships and apprenticeships, as well as offering special assistance for Afghan refugees/those with Special Immigrant Visas in their hiring process. Partnering with workforce development nonprofits that can support these processes–providing training for hiring managers and facilitating introductions and additional job seeker preparation–is a critical way to help bridge these gaps.

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Companies can also support government policy that invests in our diverse workforce, underwrites teaching professional English language skills, and supports retraining and credentialing processes. Policy change at the state level is also critical to licensing reform, including in high-need fields such as healthcare, in order to tap into the 165,000-plus internationally trained healthcare professionals who are currently on the sidelines.

Successful and sustainable diversity, equity and inclusion programs within organizations, however, should go beyond hiring diverse candidates–it must be seen at all levels. There is a common tendency to view inclusion and diversity as the responsibility of HR departments or specialist teams, but integration should extend to the management levels. Employers can also provide organization-wide training on enhancing immigrant hiring and fostering a more inclusive workplace.

A committed employer and determined HR team, coupled with U.S. jobs skills training and support programs, can pave the way for Afghan refugees and other immigrant groups to restart their lives.


Click here for more resources on how employers can lead integration in the workforce.