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International Institute staff work to get resettled refugees into the workforce

Jake Gaugert leads a Job Club session. International Institute staff assist from a room away.
Chris Drew
Jake Gaugert leads a Job Club session. International Institute staff assist from a room away.

Staff lead a weekly Job Club program and work daily to help their clients flourish.

Every Friday is Job Club at the International Institute of Southwest Missouri. It's a program of that mostly works with refugees trying to enter the workforce.

Jake Gaugert is a workforce specialist for the International Institute, which supports immigrant and refugee populations. Gaugert oversees the Job Club program and a team dedicated to assisting their clients find work.

“The long-term goal with any of our clients,” Jake explained, “is we really want them to flourish. So, try and help people understand: ‘so, what do you actually want to do? What is your passion with work?’ rather than it being: I want to have whatever job I can do right now and get the most money for it. Trying to encourage humanization, that people are not objectified.”

It can be a demanding job. This year the Institute is working with the Federal Government to resettle 300 refugees; this includes helping them find housing and work. Gaugert said there may be more than a few culture shocks and challenges upon entering the U.S. job market, and in the case of resettled refugees, the Federal Government expects people to be settled and employed within the first three months.

“With our case management it's really intense over the first 90 days of someone arriving,” Gaugert said, “after 60 days, if someone does not have a job, they’re really in dire straits, and it's all hands-on deck to try to get them into the workforce as soon as possible.”

Asylum seekers and immigrants who do not come as resettled refugees often do not come to the Institute with permission to work. It can take months to secure the right documents. Those seeking asylum must wait 150 days after filing before requesting employment authorization, then must wait at least 30 more days, with the risk that a misfiled document or missed court date can reset the clock entirely.

When a client is prepared to enter the work force Gaugert said they often need help with steps of the process many here may take for granted. Many need help with transportation to interviews, and workplace norms may be hard to adjust to. Gaugert said differences are complicated by language barriers. He explained that many of his clients have also experienced traumatic instability that makes it hard to work towards long-term goals. Part of leading them towards flourishing here is getting them on a path towards not just a job, but a career. They stick with clients for up to five years.

Hamid Safi is a job developer at the International Institute. When I met him at 10 on a Tuesday morning, he had already helped submit seven job applications for clients. He described how clients often bring considerable skills and knowledge with them, and they work to transfer those skills to the local job market. Many with specialized skills may end up working in manual labor until they can build up their English skills or become recertified in a previous trade or profession. Safi described two cases, one client with an electrician background who is getting a certification at OTC and graduating soon, and another client who worked in the medical field. “She knows the terminology,” Safi explained. They were able to find her a job in a medical office.

Back at Job Club, the Institute covers what feels like everything, helping newcomers understand their community, the importance of building a job history, what diversity and inclusion looks like here and everything from legal basics and what to expect interacting with law enforcement to what to expect from a workplace lunchroom.

Gaugert also described a process from beginning to end that focuses on humanizing and welcoming new arrivals. It is the first step to giving them that chance to flourish they all hope for.

“It's a very difficult system,” he explained. “You have to be very tenacious about it, and so we have people arriving here who for the most part understand the wonderful opportunity that it is, and want to make the best of it, so they want to go, they want to work, they want to take pride and honor in the work they’re doing.”

Sometimes there is a moment of disillusionment. The first check may seem like a lot, but people quickly adjust to our tax system and the growing cost of living that everyone struggles with. Learning how to budget in their new home can be an additional challenge, but the Institute works to find their clients full-time jobs that provide livable streams of income and places to live that are safe but within their means. The Federal Government gives resettlement agencies like the International Institute about $2400 in in-direct aid per refugee to help with critical needs like food and housing, but that money goes fast.

This pressure and the experience many have of spending months if not years in refugee camps, prepare them to accept whatever job they can, but Gaugert said they work to make sure their clients are fulfilled and working towards long-term goals.