Few people have a resume as impressive as Amin Niazai.
- New census data reveals migrants have a higher average level of education than the Australian-born
- Many migrants struggle to find work or are employed well below their level of education
- Vocational training courses for skilled migrants are not widely available in Australia
The 35-year-old Afghan-born Melburnian is a forest ecology and climate change scientist with master’s and doctoral degrees from Kyoto University in Japan.
He has led climate change adaptation and natural resource management in Afghanistan and led projects for international groups such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United States Department of Agriculture and Aus Aid.
He is fluent in four languages.
But in Australia, Dr Niazai struggled to find work in his field.
New census data released this month revealed that on average migrants like Dr Niazai have a higher level of education than the Australian-born, but many are employed well below their job level. education or find it difficult to find work.
Census results released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that more Australians than ever were continuing their education with more than 11 million holding vocational or tertiary qualifications. That’s a 20% increase since 2016.
While 56% of Australian-born people had post-school qualifications, that number rose to 63% for those born overseas and 82% for Australians born in India and Bangladesh.
Educated migrants face a ‘frustrating’ job search
In Afghanistan, Dr. Niazai’s dream was to halt the degradation and desertification of Afghan forests and transform landscapes ravaged by years of drought to replenish food resources and livelihoods for local communities.
But that dream was shattered in October last year when the Taliban takeover forced him to flee to Australia.
His family settled in well, the children started school and they made many friends in the local community.
But after seven months of looking for a job, Dr. Niazai is about to start a three-month internship in the Department of Environment, Territory, Water and Planning.
Dr. Niazai said he was excited about the opportunity, but it was a big step back in his career.
“It’s a bit frustrating for someone like me to work in leadership positions with many years of important research and work that has been published in one of the best journals in the world,” Dr. Niazai said.
“But I still think it’s a great opportunity. It can help me gain valuable experience, build professional networks and relationships, and learn more about workplace customs and culture.
“I think this opportunity will help me relaunch my professional career.”
Barriers faced by skilled migrants
Eddy Ng, a professor of organizational behavior, conducted a study that interviewed skilled migrants about their experience in Australia for James Cook University.
He identified some key barriers that made it difficult to find a job.
First, there was a general distrust of foreign degrees.
“Despite checks and the government saying this qualification is equivalent,” Professor Ng said employers were more likely to consider candidates who had studied at universities they knew.
Second, “word of mouth is important”, so without a network of “social capital”, it was difficult to find opportunities, Prof Ng said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also altered job opportunities, creating a greater need for service and hospitality sectors rather than skilled jobs.
However, Australia’s skilled worker visa program means many migrants seek higher levels of employment, creating a “labour market mismatch”, Prof Ng said.
Most employees will also favor candidates who have similar interests to theirs, often without even knowing it.
“When you provide information that is not necessary [such as hobbies and interests] it may actually exclude you from the competition due to a perceived lack of aptitude, even if you have the qualifications,” Professor Ng told the ABC.
He said electronic screening systems that extract only work-relevant information can give migrants a much better opportunity to demonstrate their skills.
Training and education on the job search process and cultural nuances – such as handshakes or eye contact which can give very different impressions from culture to culture – are also crucial.
“Knowing how to engage in a job search process, knowing what to put on your resume, even how we search for jobs, all of those things matter,” Prof Ng said.
He said migrants who arrive younger have advantages in this area. They have time to be ‘socialized’ to Australian customs and often achieve at least one local qualification.
Volunteering can help bridge the gap
Prof Ng said opportunities to gain that Australian experience, such as volunteering or joining local community groups, can make a big difference.
While looking for work, Dr. Niazai did just that.
Volunteering with a group called Wyntree at Wyndham, he helped create a “little forest” – a densely populated native bush the size of a tennis court.
Built in urban areas, small forests function as carbon sinks, helping to combat climate change and increase greenness.
Despite restarting his career well below his skill level, Dr Niazai was very optimistic about his future in Australia and hopes he can help “integrate science into our plans, policies and strategies”.
But he also dreams of one day being able to help people struggling with drought and poverty in Afghanistan.
“I still dream that one day we will return when we have peace and stability and rebuild the country,” he said.
While Mr Niazai said the resettlement process in Australia was good, there was a lack of specialist support to transition into employment.
“There are agencies here that can mentor you but not for people who are a bit higher up,” he said.
He said there are programs that help with CV preparation and interviews, but nothing to help migrants connect with potential employers.
The settlement support agency AMES Australia runs such a program, but, with limited funding, the number of participants is also limited.
The Skilled Professional Migrant Program is a short course, which includes mentoring, coaching, career guidance and networking, explained AMES Chief Executive Catherine Scarth.
The four-week course pairs individuals with a mentor from the chosen profession.
They also partner with companies that conduct interview role plays, review CVs and help job seekers understand what Australian employees are looking for.
“It gives fantastic results, something like 80% of people find work after the programme,” Ms Scarf said, adding that ideally these courses should be made available to all skilled migrants arriving through government programs.
But Ms Scarth said it was also important to manage expectations.
“When people first come in, they probably have a kind of overly optimistic view of getting a job at the same level they left home at very quickly,” she said.
“So it just helps people understand and think about what paths there might be to re-enter those professions, not necessarily thinking that the only way is to start where they left off.”
For refugees, who often flee their homes overnight with little or no possessions, there are other levels of complexity, Ms Scarth said, including barriers related to recognition of qualifications and language levels.
“That’s where you get the old adage of the doctor or the engineer who drives the cab, and we see it all the time,” she said.
In such cases, it may be useful to find jobs in related fields, such as medical professionals who find jobs in elderly care.
“At least in this case they can see a route back into the medical profession, rather than working in a factory or driving a taxi or whatever.”
Ms Scarth said it was also important for employers to recognize the benefits that diversity can bring to their businesses.
“If you want to grow your export market or want to start doing business with other countries, clearly not only will you have an incredibly skilled and dedicated resilient worker, but you’ll potentially get a whole host of additional skills around linguistic and cultural understanding,” she said.
“If we employ people who all think the same thing, then we’re only going to look at the problem the same way.”