Immigrants and refugees in the United States have high levels of post-secondary education, sought-after multilingual skills, and experience in high-demand STEM sectors, including health care—yet at least two million are unemployed or underemployed. A significant barrier to accessing employment opportunities is linked to the prevalence of networking in the U.S., and the fact that immigrants and refugees often begin their job search with few local professional contacts.
Experts suggest that the majority of U.S. workers receive job offers as a result of networking. Since 2010, a Cincinnati-based, volunteer-run non-profit, African Professionals Network (APNET), has focused on forming professional networks for local immigrants and employers alike. Most APNET members are internationally trained immigrants, refugees, and students from African countries, though membership is open to all.
“APNET began with a group of alumni [Africans who had graduated from local universities] who realized that they shared common challenges, and that those challenges weren’t unique to them—they were common to all immigrants,” said Olu Jegede, an APNET member and volunteer. “These challenges were related to access.”
Professional Networking as a Barrier
In Ohio, unemployment and underemployment affect 19 percent of the state’s 147,800 college-educated immigrant and refugee workers.
Research from World Education Services (WES) shows that limited access to professional networks is a critical driver of these trends. In a 2019 WES survey of nearly 5,000 immigrants and refugees, respondents ranked “not having professional contacts in my desired field” second of 11 barriers cited in the survey, after the expense of obtaining additional training or credentials.
Many immigrants and refugees arrive in new communities with few local contacts and have only limited exposure to U.S. networking norms, which may differ significantly from those of other countries.
“Networking is different for the African community,” said Prince Ellis, PhD, co-founder of APNET. “People aren’t used to networking events. But to find your dream job, you can’t just go to school and get a good GPA. It just doesn’t work that way [in the U.S.].”
An Opportunity for Local Workers and Workforces
Cincinnati’s immigrants and refugees have valuable education, skills, and training to offer the local workforce. More than 45 percent of the city’s immigrants and refugees hold a bachelor’s degree, and more than 24 percent hold an advanced degree, compared with 32 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of their U.S.-born peers. National data suggest that immigrants from African countries have the in-demand skills Cincinnati employers need: One in three college-educated immigrants from Africa holds degrees in a STEM field, and nearly 30 percent of Africans in the U.S. workforce are employed in the health care sector, compared with just 13 percent of their U.S.-born peers.
Cincinnati faces critical worker shortages. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 15,000 fewer people are working or looking for work locally. Health workforce shortages are on the rise, as the demands of the pandemic have strained an already short-staffed health care system.
Yet, despite their experience and training, significant numbers of immigrants and refugees are underemployed. More than 20 percent of Cincinnati’s college-educated immigrants and refugees live below the poverty line, a rate more than double that of their U.S.-born peers. In addition to limited access to professional networks, racial and ethnic discrimination can limit employment opportunities. Across the country, college-educated Black immigrants are 54 percent more likely to be underemployed than their White counterparts.
Developing Networks in Cincinnati and Beyond
APNET advances opportunities for African immigrants, refugees, and other newcomers with programs that foster professional connections between internationally trained workers, students, and local employers. The organization offers networking and mentoring opportunities, including:
- Regular networking events, featuring speakers from the local business community
- Mentoring opportunities that connect new arrivals with community resources and professional networks
- An annual symposium—the organization’s largest event—featuring keynote speakers, African cuisine, entertainment, awards, and networking opportunities
- An annual festival to celebrate Africa with food, entertainment, and activities, with a goal of boosting community awareness of African cultures and fostering connections between APNET members and local resources
APNET also engages local employers and corporate partners to fund events, attend networking programs, and open pipelines to employment.
“The participants and speakers at our events share their corporate and entrepreneurial journeys, and often assist our members with building valuable networks,” said Jegede. “When you see people who share your background doing what you want to do, that matters.”
As local employers struggle to fill record-level job openings, APNET has emerged as an important source of candidates. In recent months, Ellis has seen an uptick in inquiries and job postings from regional companies. The varied experiences and linguistic skills of APNET members are an asset to the local workforce; Ellis also hears from local employers eager to act on DEI commitments.
“With more exposure, we see more connections,” said Ellis. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done in terms of equity in pay and in recruiting for board membership and leadership positions, but I see progress.”
Advancing Connections Benefits Everyone
APNET is a long-time partner of Cincinnati Compass, a hub that convenes the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, City of Cincinnati, University of Cincinnati, and dozens of community-based organizations in a shared mission of welcoming and advancing the economic inclusion of immigrants and refugees. Cincinnati Compass is a 2020 alum of WES Global Talent Bridge’s Skilled Immigrant Integration Program (SIIP). Together, APNET and Cincinnati Compass have created a roundtable to engage stakeholders in advancing immigrant inclusion in the local community and economy.
“We believe that advancing connections between immigrants, refugees, and the greater Cincinnati community—including area employers—benefits everyone who lives in our region,” said Bryan Wright, executive director, Cincinnati Compass. “At a time of economic challenge and struggles to match talent with open positions—especially in the health care and IT sectors, which power our local economy—we must ensure that we’re opening opportunities for everyone in the Cincinnati region to meet their educational and career goals. Working with incredible partners like APNET, we’re breaking down barriers, enhancing the assets of community members, advancing inclusion, and building a stronger workforce together.”
A Model to Scale
With growing engagement with the community, key partners, employers, and dedicated volunteers, APNET has expanded its reach over the past 12 years. Ellis points to increases in program enrollment, event attendance, and support of the organization’s local scholarship fund as evidence of the impact of APNET’s program model. Local elected officials are also taking notice. Former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley issued a city proclamation celebrating APNET’s 10th anniversary in 2020.
“APNET has grown because of dedication from board members. We all personally struggled, went through hardship to get where we are, and made mistakes. If we can make the learning curve easier for people, we intend to,” said Ellis.
Visit APNET’s website to find out more and support the network’s efforts.