Connecting Opportunities – How can you offer support? – Emily Stevenson


Do you remember that feeling applying for your first ‘proper job’ after education? Feeling determined, enthusiastic, bursting with skills and knowledge and the certificate in hand to prove it? Well imagine doing that, but as someone who is new to the UK. Whether you are seeking sanctuary in the UK from war or persecution (as a refugee), or you have chosen to come to the UK for a better life for you and your family (as a migrant), applying and securing a job in this country can be a real challenge, despite the best of intentions.

Sadly, although refugees and migrants have a whole host of skills, experiences and qualifications that employers can benefit from, the employment rate is still lower than the national average (most significantly for refugees, at 50%). Many refugees are well qualified in trades we have vacancies in, but as refugees are forced to flee their homes and their countries, there is rarely time to pack a bag (never mind a university certificate) meaning that, along with everything else, they are forced to leave behind their education. At least, for those that do manage to provide proof of their educational history, there exists the government designated agency UK NARIC, which can provide a UK relevant comparison of international qualifications and skills. Yet, without UK work experience, employers can overlook exceptionally good candidates, and this can impact on many applicants’ self-esteem and confidence – applicants who are already struggling to navigate unfamiliar employment processes and systems. For example, a substantially higher rate of refugees (twice the national average), rely predominantly on public agencies such as the Job Centre to search for job opportunities, rather than also exploring more indirect routes – such as being a part of professional membership networks, such as CACHE Alumni!

There are also social factors at play which can affect how likely refugees and migrants are to find work, education or training. Of course, a limited level of English can be a huge barrier to people; and this can be particularly difficult for highly experienced refugees or migrants with limited English who often report feeling as if they need to rebuild their life from scratch. For many people – particularly refugees who may have existing mental health conditions linked to the trauma of fleeing their country – getting ready for the world of work is a gradual process, which involves familiarising yourself with your new environment, building your confidence, and starting to feel as if you belong, and are able to have an impact in your community.

Since challenges affecting refugees and migrants looking for work are varied and wide ranging, it is a holistic approach to support which can help the most. Regional programmes such as ‘Connecting Opportunities’ work with local partner organisations who all collaborate to support refugees and migrants to develop skills and confidence, find opportunities for work and feel more connected to where they live. Participants receive up to 12 months of support which is tailored to the individual; allowing them to access different elements of the programme according to their needs. For some, the weekly English language classes and conversation groups are crucial; in particular, for some migrants on spouse visas, who have no recourse to public funds and would otherwise have to pay for local college courses.

For others the option to access specialist mental health support (without the painfully long waiting time) is a hugely important first steppingstone in preparing oneself for work. Many participants are isolated, lacking the social and familial network many of us take for granted. One participant, Sarah, saw her confidence grow through free counselling and one-to-one support. It enabled her to begin a college course in hairdressing, and recently she has been approaching local salons for a job or placement. She said: “Connecting Opportunities became sunshine for me. Slowly, I felt my mind opening. I wanted to go out, I wanted to talk with people.”

All participants are assigned a dedicated keyworker, who provides them with employment support and advice, and can link them up with further training and work experience opportunities throughout the 12 months. On top of this, participants can also access Mentoring and Befriending as part of the programme, where they are matched with a volunteer who meets them for a couple of hours each week, building a relationship with them, and encouraging them to try new things and explore new opportunities. All Mentoring/Befriending relationships are different: while some volunteers focus on supporting participants with English, and helping to build their social network, others have more of a work focus and can support participants to achieve their professional goals. For example, Joanne (volunteer) and Ahlam (participant) talk a lot about future opportunities, and Joanne says, that “the role of Mentor/Befriender is almost like being someone’s Champion…I’m here to listen, reassure, and talk through things, which helps Ahlam to work things out.”

Connecting Opportunities would love to work with more employers and individuals who are interested in supporting refugees and migrants to get into employment, work experience, or to build their confidence through our Mentoring and Befriending scheme. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Emily Stevenson – [email protected] – or have a look on the Connecting Opportunities website here. Rebuilding your life and career in the UK can’t be easy, however, if individuals and organisations can work together to overcome the challenges, nourish people and help them to access opportunities, then refugees and migrants can add significant value to the UK workforce, and to the communities they live in as well.