Transitioning from refugee to worker

A not-for-profit social enterprise company is venturing into an area that most employers and recruitment agencies fear to tread. Transitions London, founded in 2010, aims to help arguably the most marginalised group in the UK labour market: refugees. The figures tell their own story, with the unemployment rate for refugees at around 70%, according to a Department of Work and Pensions research paper in 2002, far higher than for the general population.

Fri, 22 July 2016 | By Colin Cottell

FROM AUGUST'S RECRUITER MAGAZINE

A not-for-profit social enterprise company is venturing into an area that most employers and recruitment agencies fear to tread. Transitions London, founded in 2010, aims to help arguably the most marginalised group in the UK labour market: refugees. The figures tell their own story, with the unemployment rate for refugees at around 70%, according to a Department of Work and Pensions research paper in 2002, far higher than for the general population.

However, according to Sheila Heard, founder and managing director of Transitions London, that could even be an understatement. “As anyone working in the sector will tell you, if anything it has got worse,” she says. Indeed, 2014 figures from the Home Office paint an even bleaker picture, with only five out of a group of 75 Syrian refugees in work 18 months after their arrival in the UK.  

Although Transitions London focuses on highly skilled and graduate-level refugees, who make up around 25% of all UK refugees, Heard says they face the same barriers to employment in the UK as other refugees. These include employers’ ignorance, bias and general suspicion of refugees, while refugees themselves lack UK experience and understanding of the labour market, and how to best present themselves to UK employers.

Yet standing out against the despair felt by many refugees are examples showing that with the right support, refugees can be brought into the mainstream employment fold.
The case of Samira (not her real name), a refugee from Iraq, who landed a job at international engineering consultancy Arup, highlights the value of internships in giving refugees an opportunity to prove themselves (see also News story).

Although Transitions London may have placed only 59 of its candidates into work since 2011, don’t let those numbers fool you. According to Heard, each successful candidate takes on average between 12 and 18 months to place, and takes a huge amount of hard work, perseverance and commitment.

Refugees like Samira and thousands of others face many barriers to employment, says Heard. The biggest is employers not having the right information about refugees, their status and their right to work. “It is not completely the fault of recruiters,” says Heard, because government websites make it “difficult to find” that refugees have the right to work and don’t need a visa. This ignorance has dire consequences for refugees.

Career gaps caused by the disruption to their lives, and by asylum seekers not being allowed to work in the UK, leaving many in limbo for up to 10 years awaiting a final decision on their asylum claim, also put employers off. In recent years suspicions “whether it is conscious or unconscious” that refugees could be terrorists have also made refugees’ employment chances even more difficult, says Heard. “A refugee will do his best not to say they are a refugee. But anyone looking at their CV and seeing they come from Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan will know,” she adds.  

Heard says the key to unlocking the doors of employment opportunity have been internships, with 70% of Transitions’ placements resulting from an internship or work placement.

“If you don’t run internships you aren’t going to get anywhere,” says Heard. “The
advantage for the employer is that it lowers conscious and unconscious bias from hiring manager and staff.” Heard cites the example of a mechanical engineer with 15 years’ experience successfully placed at construction services company Carillion: “The way that he worked, it was immediately obvious he knew what he was doing.”

Even when an intern is not offered a permanent position, they benefit by gaining greater self-confidence, better interview and job application skills.

Heard highlights the importance of individuals within organisations who ‘champion’ the work that Transitions does and the business case for hiring skilled refugees. Jon Hull, head of resourcing at Carillion, is one such champion.

Marine conservation charity Blue Ventures is another organisation that recognises the value of the work that Transitions London does. “They [Transitions] do a great job in representing people who find it hard to get into the workplace by giving them a profile,” says Blue Ventures managing director Richard Nimmo. Nimmo says they enjoyed “a good experience” with a refugee introduced by Heard who was engaged as a freelancer “on a regular and ongoing basis”.

Professional placements
According to Heard, most of those whom it supports fit into four categories: engineering, business services, international development and teachers. Almost all are highly qualified to degree level, and have years of work experience from their home countries.

Among the organisations where Transitions has successfully placed candidates are Arup, Carillion, Crossrail and National Grid. Half of the refugees are referred by other refugee agencies and housing associations, while the other half come to Transitions via word of mouth. Heard says the organisation takes around 30 refugees onto its books a year, and has around 40 active candidates at any one time.

Much of Transitions’ work is around breaking down the barriers into employment faced by refugees. One such offering is the series of workshops it runs for its candidates. A typical workshop might provide information on UK engineering standards, or UK professional bodies, as well as practical advice on competency-based selection systems, how to complete application forms and prepare a professional-looking CV.

Workshops hosted by employers and run by Transitions in conjunction with clients’ own staff have also proved successful. US business consultants Oliver Wyman is one company that has hosted workshops and has now taken on two refugees as paid interns. One is a woman engineer from Iran, the other an economist from Afghanistan.
Professional services firm KPMG have held three workshops aimed at helping unemployed refugees get into business services.  

Another initiative is coaching partnerships between a refugee on Transitions’ books and either a previously successful Transitions candidate or a volunteer from a corporate.
Heard says one benefit is “it helps them to hear about opportunities because so many roles are not advertised”, says Heard.   

Heard is looking for other London employers to step up and provide work placements, host workshops and ultimately hire refugee professionals. She doesn’t care whether they are doing it as part of corporate social responsibility initiatives or because it fits in with their inclusivity policy. “They should already be considering anyone who has the skills,” she adds

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