St. Louis’s Bevo Mill neighborhood—home to a corridor of immigrant-owned restaurants, markets, and salons—is known as “Little Bosnia,” a testament to the city’s revitalization by the tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees who arrived there in the 1990s, fleeing conflict in the Balkans. The newcomers made important contributions to the city, launching both businesses and careers in hospitality, health care, and tech.
Today, St. Louis is home to 140,000 immigrants and refugees, most of them hailing from Mexico, China, India, and Vietnam. The International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL), a 102-year-old refugee resettlement, immigrant assistance, and workforce development agency, has a track record of developing strong direct service programs and community partnerships that advance the economic and social integration of the people it serves. IISTL has sponsored more than 24,000 refugees since 1979, including 6,700 Bosnian refugees.
In 2017, IISTL applied for funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to launch the Refugee Career Pathways (RCP) program, which was designed to support refugees who have international credentials and professional experience as they seek to re-enter their fields in the United States. Yet, by the time RCP launched more than a year later, the needs of St. Louis’s refugee population had changed; so IISTL expanded the program to include individuals who had more limited education and work experience. Then, in 2020, IISTL received funding to launch its Immigrant Career Pathways (ICP) program to serve immigrants who hold international credentials.
Currently, the RCP and ICP programs cater to the needs of diverse groups of IISTL clients. To date, they have worked with clients from 28 countries around the world with a broad range of professional backgrounds and educational experience.
IISTL ICP staff prepare individualized career pathways for each participant. These plans include detailed steps for job seekers to acquire base-level skills and credentials to start a new career; apply their existing post-secondary credentials and experience to re-enter their professional fields; and to obtain localized industry information and career advancement options. According to Chelsea Hand-Sheridan, director of Workforce Solutions at IISTL, developing comprehensive, detailed plans is critical to “meet individuals where they are in their career progression and helping them get where they want to go.”
Modeling Initiatives to Meet the Moment
Despite the pressing demands brought on by the pandemic last year, IISTL not only maintained its existing workforce development programs, but it also nimbly launched new initiatives in response to clients’ growing needs. It succeeded by prioritizing four key areas:
A focus on career pathways positioned job seekers for success. Unemployment rates spiked to 14.4 percent last spring. Yet, even as the economy declined, RCP and ICP program participants were able to work toward their career goals by studying English, earning new credentials, and completing online certification courses.
Flexible program delivery models benefited immigrant and refugee clients. As stay-at-home mandates prompted office closures, IISTL began offering asynchronous online classes. The switch to virtual programming that allowed clients to attend class according to their own schedule enabled them to continue acquiring new skills. “Many of our clients work multiple entry-level jobs to provide for their families,” said Hand-Sheridan. “[With the digital learning we offered], we were able to work with people where they were, increasing accessibility.”
Engagement with new platforms improved clients’ digital skills. Although the shift to online platforms initially presented a challenge to both IISTL staff and clients, it also created an opportunity for job seekers to learn fundamental digital skills. Not all clients had a computer or internet at home, but most had a smartphone. Staff helped clients access IISTL trainings and resources on clients’ phones, building digital literacy skills that also supported their job searches.
Community partnerships opened up employment possibilities. As the economy began to recover, IISTL collaborated with city and state agencies such as the State Department of Education and Workforce Development and local Workforce Development Board and nonprofit networks to forge connections with local hiring managers and unions, creating new employment opportunities for its clients.
Individualized Support Opens Pathways to Success
IISTL’s programming and partnerships are yielding results: A physician from Afghanistan earned a certificate as a medical assistant and recently secured employment in a local clinic, after working with IISTL to connect with a health care staffing agency. An elementary teacher from Iraq had their degree evaluated and secured a position as a teacher’s assistant in a Montessori school to gain valuable U.S.-based experience as they continue on their career path. A mechanical engineer from Bosnia found a role in an engineering firm that is eager to support her career advancement.
Adaptability, resilience, and a commitment to meeting clients’ needs have helped IISTL weather more than a century of change—including the recent disruptions of a pandemic. Staff will continue to focus on the organization’s core values of flexibility and service. RCP and ICP will be offered as hybrid programs, providing both in-person and asynchronous online options. “We now understand that even if you don’t have infrastructure or deep systems in place to deliver programs, you can still support individuals in important ways,” said Hand-Sheridan.
From Bevo Mill and beyond, IISTL’s success in helping clients advance in their career pathways is building a more vibrant St. Louis—and a promising model for other cities to adopt to develop more inclusive, more resilient economies.