To mark National Volunteer Week 2020,  I interviewed (via Zoom) our Employment Support Programme Mentor, Valerie. Covid-19 has put an added complication to newly arrived migrants looking for work or changing jobs and Valerie and the Sydney MCS team have recently reformatted the programme to a digital one under the current circumstances.

Your background
Valerie is a retired HR Director from the Financial Services industry.

Why do you volunteer?
When Valerie retired, she thought perhaps her experience as an HR professional could be put to use in the community.  She began her volunteering life helping young people at a Charity ‘drop in centre’ to find employment.  As the centre was about to be closed due to lack of funding, she inadvertently ended up forming a small, dedicated fundraising committee.  With the funds raised, the centre was saved and is still thriving today in a new, well resourced and well equipped building.  

Her next volunteer role was as a Board Member at a Charity which accommodated and supported homeless young people.  Once again fundraising became the priority to keep the work going and support young people with extensive and complex needs. 

In 2017 she attended a Refugee information evening sponsored by the Lane Cove Council.  It was here she heard Noel, our Settlement Community Development Officer/Caseworker, speak about his experience of coming to Australia.  Noel was looking at ways to support refugees and migrants in his area.  Valerie joined him in July 2017 and the Employment Support Program was launched. 

“It is very rewarding work being able to assist refugees and migrants who are starting a new life in Australia.  It’s easy to keep motivated as I’ve met some wonderful people and it’s so rewarding when they obtain employment, especially when it’s in their chosen field”.

It’s a stark change from her previous volunteer experience with disadvantaged young people, as her clients now are highly motivated and actively seeking employment.  They are pleased to have someone ‘on their side’ explaining cultural differences, as well as the issues involved in obtaining employment.   

“I also learn from my clients as most of them have experience in industries where I have little knowledge.”  However it’s often easier for Valerie to research industries and professional groups for them.  By speaking with professional associations for engineers, architects, accountants and others, she is able to quickly obtain relevant information regarding assessment of their qualifications, professional information sessions and employment prospects.  Often clients are hesitant to do that as they feel self conscious about their level of English, especially over the phone. 

“Sometimes I can open a door, or show them a new way to look for a job, by discussing options which they may not have considered.”

Success story
Shortly​ after joining the Sydney MCS team, Valerie participated in our ‘Multicultural Community Hub’ event at Westfield Eastgardens, a pop up hub with  on-the-spot help and information including employment support.  Ahmed, an Engineer originally from Egypt who emigrated from the Middle East, where he worked as a Program Manager for one of the largest oil and gas firms, attended the ‘Hub’. Although Ahmed was a highly successful and well qualified Engineer in the Middle East, he had not had any success in obtaining employment in Sydney. He realised he needed to be well versed with the Australian (construction) standards and the Sydney job market, including a different way of presenting his resume and a cover letter.

Ahmed was one of Valerie’s first clients and they both worked diligently together on his resume to better showcase his experience and skills. She also helped Ahmed to tailor his cover letters to better match job descriptions and provided feedback throughout the process. Ahmed’s commitment to this challenge paid dividends and he eventually landed a role as Site Engineer with Sydney Metro Projects. Ahmed stated “I accepted a modest start in my first infrastructure position, but I kept in mind the lesson I learned at the beginning of my career and the advice from Sydney MCS.” (Your Path to Career Success: Tips for Migrants and Refugees to find Work view it here). His hard work paid off, and he was quickly promoted to Project Manager and his career has since progressed even further.

Challenges you overcame
Valerie explains that her first volunteering role was a wake-up call, dealing with 16-20 year olds.  They had often come from dysfunctional families, often lacked father figures and had very little stability and a good deal of uncertainty in their lives.  It was a stark difference from the people she had worked with in her corporate HR role.  

It often took several months to get through to them as it required time to build their trust.  In their view so many adults had let them down or left them, so they would not easily trust a newcomer.  She recalls compiling a resume with one young man as he didn’t know how to do that.  Standing at the printer with a first time resume in his hands, he exclaimed “this is my life”.  Soon after that he found a job and then others became interested and sought her help.  She learned that it was all about their timing – not hers – and what was going on in their lives on any given day.  In the corporate world it had been so different where things just got done!

Barriers for clients
At Sydney MCS, Valerie has mentored clients from 14 different countries.  Although most have a good command of English, their English pronunciation is often a barrier to success.  Word stress, idioms and written business English varies widely between countries.  She has to tailor her mentoring accordingly.  She is fortunate to be able to call on another volunteer with the skills to conduct interview role plays.  This gives her clients the chance to obtain firsthand experience of an Australian style of interview from someone who doesn’t know them – and good feedback afterwards which helps before they attend a real interview.  

Different types of Visas can be a barrier for some employers.  As she explains to her clients, it is important to ‘adjust expectations’ when seeking the first job in a new country.  Qualifications, previous experience or job titles may be perceived very differently here.  She helps clients broaden their scope, look at the hidden job market, determine their ‘transferable skills’ and encourages them to obtain Australian experience in a voluntary role while looking for a job.

Being able to continue meeting and supporting clients via Zoom, has been a wonderful alternative during these current times.  Valerie has presented workshops for our clients and will soon present a Webinar using Zoom, to reach our clients during these challenging times of Covid-19. 

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Contact for further information!
Words by Summeet and Valerie
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