Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians expands efforts to place immigrant professionals in chosen careers

Amanda Bergson-Shilcock is director of outreach and program evaluation at the nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia, which Knight Foundation supports to help harness and retain immigrant talent. 

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock

I still remember Marcel (I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy). He came into our office one day, a young Haitian man eager to make his mark on the world. In his native country, he’d been a doctor.

In this one, he was washing cars—for $6.25 an hour.

Becoming an obstetrician would have been an extraordinary achievement in any country. It was even more so in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Marcel’s determination shone through as he talked with our employment specialist.

Marcel was far from the first immigrant jobseeker to walk through our doors. The staff at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians is skilled at helping immigrants find their first U.S. jobs, having placed more than 1,200 legally work-authorized individuals in employment over the last decade.

For many of the men and women we work with, these are so-called survival jobs – a significant step down from their earlier careers.  Such entry-level jobs are not a  long-term solution, but the government contracts that have funded our work don’t give us the time to do more than make an immediate job placement. And as our former director of employment, herself a refugee, used to say wryly, “You have to work if you want to eat.” 

She was equally frank in advising jobseekers. “You have to have a short goal and a long goal,” she would say.

Our immigrant clients are full of such “long goals.” Many, like Marcel, want to return to the profession for which they were trained. They dream of being able to use the full range of their skills in the United States, and support their families at a higher level.

In Pennsylvania, there are an estimated 32,000 college-educated immigrants who are underemployed. Like Marcel, they often work in low-wage jobs.

For the Welcoming Center, helping these legally work-authorized, qualified jobseekers is a core part of our mission. We are thrilled that new support from Knight Foundation—$412,000 over three years—will allow us to launch a formal Immigrant Professionals Career Pathways Program, including:

  • Comprehensive assessment of participants’ education, English language skills, employment history and feasibility of transitioning back into their chosen profession

  • Provision of information on the U.S. licensure process, fees and exams

  • Test preparation, including test-taking skills and strategies

  • Referrals to resources such as credential assessment, and college “bridge” courses

  • Contextualized English classes

  • Acculturation workshops

  • Guidance on resumes, job hunting, networking and interview preparation

These elements are based on promising practices identified by our partners at IMPRINT, a national coalition focused on immigrant professionals. 

And Marcel? We helped him find a laboratory technician job at a higher wage, putting him in a U.S. healthcare setting for the first time. He studied for his board exams at night. Eventually, he won a competitive medical residency slot. Today, he is a practicing ob-gyn in a New York hospital.

With Knight Foundation’s support, we look forward to serving many more Marcels – and placing them in employment right here in Philadelphia.

Founded in 2003, the Welcoming Center has served more than 11,000 individuals through employment, entrepreneurship and adult education services. Learn more at the Welcoming Center’s website, and find out about Pennsylvania’s college-educated immigrants in this data snapshot (PDF).