Bates study: Accept Somali work experience for GED, language skills

The largest barrier to employment for many new Somali residents of Lewiston and Auburn is a lack of English language skills, according to a new report by a Bates College research group.

Somali respondents also voiced frustration that a General Educational Development (GED) certificate is often required as a minimum qualification for most entry-level jobs, regardless of prior job experience. The GED certifies that an individual has American high school-level academic skills.

The report, which was created for the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Career Center in Lewiston, complements an April 2008 report by the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) on Somali employment patterns in Lewiston-Auburn based on wage statistics, according to Bates College Professor of Anthropology Elizabeth Eames, a principal author of the study.

“Through holding several focus groups with human resource professionals and others with immigrant job-seekers,” Eames said, “we came to a better understanding of the full range of impediments to immigrant employment in the Lewiston-Auburn area.”

Some 17 Bates students in Eames’ economic anthropology course conducted two focus groups with potential Somali employees and three meetings with employers. One was an interview with a human resource specialist at a large employer in Lewiston. The other two were focus groups coordinated through the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce, with more than 20 area employers represented.

According to the MDOL report, unemployment during 2006 was about 6.2 percent in the state, but 51 percent among Somali residents of the twin cities. MDOL said that new immigrants from Somalia typically took almost two years to find employment in the area, and that part of the unemployment rate could be attributed to childrearing and to taking language courses and employment training.

Somali residents interviewed by the Bates group said that many in their community have held entry-level positions in other states and felt that the GED requirement rendered their prior work experience irrelevant. They felt that successfully maintaining such jobs did not necessarily require a GED level of formal education.

Other perceptions offered by Somalis seeking employment:

Lack of computer skills is an obstacle. Online applications are a challenge. Moreover, computer literacy is required for job applicants even when the actual job does not require any such skill.

Many potential job seekers referred to feelings of discrimination when they were not contacted, or not hired, or when they were disqualified based on language skills or educational background, despite their abilities to perform the tasks assigned.

Overall, communication barriers and the resulting lack of mutual understanding were the largest concern of the job seekers in our study.

Employers expressed similar concerns regarding communication. “Evaluating potential employees was difficult when information seems to get lost in translation,” according to the report’s executive summary.” They expressed having difficulty reading body language and emotional reaction in interviewees. ”

Other points made by area employers:

After hiring Somali employees, it is seen to be a challenge to convey employment policies and procedures. Safety issues have been one of the biggest concerns expressed in our study.

Cultural differences appear to pose obstacles to employers in the areas of timeliness, clothing, and certain religious practices. Some learned not to assume homogeneity among the immigrant population, noting that Somalis display a range of religious expression, modes of dress, and punctuality.

Tension between African immigrant and other employees, as well as that between ethnic Somalis and Somali Bantu refugees, was cited as a disincentive to émigré employment.

The Bates research group offered several suggestions to increase access to employment for Somalis.

Both employers and employees recommend multiplying the types of acceptable application procedures and prerequisites. This includes demonstrating one’s ability through pictures, using trained translators, and revising hiring requirements for the GED, English language skills, or computer literacy. Accepting prior work experience as evidence of employability, and accepting alternative forms of recommendations, could assist in this effort.

Examples of successful training programs should include hands-on sessions, online courses, and establishing conversation partners on site.

Using well-trained cultural brokers to assist in safety, policy, employment rights, and diversity awareness workshops was highly recommended.

The report concluded that demographics indicate obvious benefits to assisting the employment of the latest immigrants to Lewiston-Auburn:

“As a large percentage of Maine’s workforce will approach retirement age in the next few years, recent Somali immigrants potentially could fill our employment gap,” the report stated. “Moreover, as 10 percent of our population, we need to employ members of this group, they need the wages, are willing to work hard at entry level positions. (They) will bring diversity to our workplaces, will work flexible hours, can broaden our customer base as well as our employment pool, and will prove to be loyal employees committed to their employers.”

Chamber executive director Chip Morrison agrees that more workers are needed long-term. However, he said that with the national economic downturn, a new short-term barrier for those seeking employment is “more and more overqualified people in the job market.” Morrison said he is hoping the economy will improve with the change in presidential administrations.

“I really appreciate your interest and all of your good work,” Morrison told the Bates research group.”This will help us.”

Perceived Barriers to Somali Immigrant Employment in Lewiston

Community-Based Research Project for Anthropology 339

Bates College Department of Anthropology; Fall 2008

MDOL Analysis of the Employment Patterns of Somali Immigrants

to Lewiston from 2001 through 2006; April 2008 Migrant Report.pdf

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