Participants in Allegheny County's Refugee Career Mentoring Program, Fall 2011

Imagine having to flee your home and your country due to war or ethnic persecution, taking little more than the things you can carry. Yet that is the case for nearly 11 million people around the globe, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands are permitted to settle in the United States each year, and over the past two decades, the Pittsburgh area has welcomed several hundred refugees from places as varied as the former Yugoslavia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many refugees are educated professionals who held high-skilled jobs in their home countries. But while legally permitted to work in the United States, finding appropriate employment here is often a challenge that is less about qualification than figuring out how to seek and secure employment and build professional networks in a foreign culture.

The Refugee Career Mentoring Program is working to bridge that gap. Launched in September by Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services’ Immigrants and Internationals Advisory Council, the program is a collaborative effort of various organizations in the region, including the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Catholic Charities and Vibrant Pittsburgh.

Despite being an unfunded, largely volunteer effort, the program has successfully matched 10 refugees, mostly in the engineering fields, with 10 high-quality mentors, and holds monthly training sessions catered with donations from area establishments. Mentors provide training in such basic job-seeking skills as resume writing and interviewing skills, and introduce mentees to professionals and resources in the Pittsburgh region. At a recent session I had an opportunity to walk participants through ImaginePittsburgh.com, the Allegheny Conference’s one-stop job and career awareness portal featuring nearly 20,000 open positions across the region.

The Refugee Career Mentoring Program needs engineers and human resources professionals who work in engineering firms to participate in panel discussions, sharing their insights about networking and the skills and traits that employers seek. As the program’s chair, Yvette Yescas, recently noted, “For professionals in the engineering field — particularly environmental, agricultural or chemical engineering — this is an excellent opportunity to build professional networks and share expertise.”

To volunteer or learn more about the program, send an email to yvetteyescas AT gmail DOT com, or visit the DHS website. You can also check out Yescas’ blog on Career Mentoring here.