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Vocational and Educational Support Crucial for Skilled Immigrant Success

Thursday November 21, 2019 | by Lisa Levi

INVEST, an initiative of Knoxville Internationals Network (KIN), has recently relaunched under the new leadership of Judith Kimsey. Formerly housed in Tennessee Immigrant Empowerment Solutions, KIN took ownership of the program in 2017. The acronym stands for Internationals’ Network for Vocational and Educational Support to Thrive, because INVEST knows just how crucial that support is for both their skilled immigrant clients and the greater Knoxville community.

“With over 35,000 internationals in the Knoxville metro area,” Kimsey explains, “we at KIN frequently meet people working in entry-level, low-skill positions who, upon further conversation, we learn hold college degrees from universities in their homelands. They are thankful for work but stifled by their current positions.  At the same time, local employers lack qualified applicants for positions at all levels. With a little assistance, our college-educated internationals can fill part of this gap.” INVEST works to combat this “brain waste” by equipping and connecting immigrant professionals to people and organizations in the Knoxville area.

The nine-month program is built around an advanced intermediate ELL curriculum emphasizing accent reduction and writing skills, the two areas where INVEST’s skilled immigrant clients need the most support. ELL classes meet weekly, with an additional weekly employment skills training. As often as possible, INVEST brings in outside facilitators for the training workshops—experts in their fields who can also serve as future networking contacts. Recent workshops have focused on workplace culture, teaching participants the social nuances they will need to successfully navigate the American workplace.

“My favorite example is the office birthday party,” says Kimsey. “Do you take a gift? Are you required to attend? Aren’t birthday parties for children? Many workplace interactions are natural to native-born Americans but very unusual for those from other cultures.” Knowing in advance how to handle social situations at work enables skilled immigrants to integrate more seamlessly into their new professional roles.

The additional components of the program, including career coaching and professional mentoring, can add up to a significant time commitment for participants. This intensity is part of what allows INVEST to make a real difference in their clients’ lives, but it is also the program’s greatest challenge.

“[Our clients] already work, take care of families, and serve in their communities,” Kimsey says. “It’s often difficult for them to add another set of things to their lives. We must frequently encourage them to prioritize their INVEST work to improve their lives in the long term.” In fact, this encouragement is built into the program, as it is part of the career coaches’ job to keep participants focused on their long-term goals, and to cheer them on through the inevitable rough patches.

At the same time, INVEST recognizes that preparing skilled immigrants to pursue their professional dreams is only half of the equation: Even the best training and coaching can only benefit them if local employers are willing to hire them. To combat barriers of prejudice and stereotyping that can prevent employers from considering immigrants as potential employees, INVEST is creating a series of diversity training seminars that will be offered to Knoxville-area employers. Designed to encourage cross-cultural hiring, these paid seminars will also help INVEST sustain itself financially. Meanwhile, in the broader community, KIN also advocates for all immigrants and fosters social connections between them and Knoxville natives through their education, health & wellness, and employment initiatives.

It is still early days for this rebooted version of INVEST: The first cohort will be finishing the program and looking for work near the end of the year. Going forward, Kimsey would love to connect with other organizations doing similar work—especially if those that have been at it for a bit longer could impart some of their hard-won wisdom. “Connections to similar organizations who have success stories to tell (and some failures to share) would help us make better decisions for long-term efficacy and for our current participants.” For now, INVEST’s two-pronged effort to combat brain waste in Knoxville is off to a promising start, training skilled immigrants and local employers alike to adapt to each other’s differences, and to thrive together.

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Lisa Levi is an editorial contributor for WES Global Talent Bridge.