Mayor of Lewiston reports on why Somalis have trouble getting jobs

The Mayor of Lewiston, Maine, home to  many thousands of  Somali refugees (see here, here, and here for a few of Ann’s posts), has written an informative column on his blog, explaining why so many of them are unemployed.  He is reporting on a research project done by students in an anthropology course at Bates College.

Like so many of these studies, the results seem pretty obvious — he probably could have talked to a couple of employers and a couple of Somalis who speak English and come up with the same conclusions. But that would have deprived the students of a valuable research experience, so what the heck. Here’s what they found, leaving out a lot of words that don’t say much. It’s worth noting that the study began before the financial crash and finished during it.

Oops, it’s not about the actual reasons; it’s about the “perspectives of potential employers and employees concerning perceived barriers to Somali employment.” Just in case the employers and employees are in touch with reality, we’ll proceed. Here they are:

Employees’ Perceived Barriers:

• The biggest problem potential employees feel they face is the need of English language skills when finding, applying, and maintaining employment.

• Employees found frustration with the GED requirement for employment in entry-level positions. Many had job experience in other American states; however this experience was rendered irrelevant by local employers’ GED requirements. They felt that successfully maintaining such jobs did not necessarily require a GED level of formal education.

• Lack of computer skills were another obstacle encountered by the New Mainers. Online applications were a challenge. Moreover, computer literacy is required for job applicants even when the actual job does not require any such skill.

• Many potential job seekers referred to feelings of discrimination when they were not contacted, not hired, or when they were disqualified based on language skills or educational background, despite their abilities to perform the tasks assigned.

• Overall, communication barriers, and the resulting lack of mutual understanding, were the largest concern of the job seekers in our study.

Employers’ Perceived Barriers:

• Employers expressed similar concerns regarding communication. Evaluating potential employees was difficult when information seems to get lost in translation. They expressed having difficulty reading body language and emotional reaction in interviewees.

• After hiring Somali employees, it is seen to be a challenge to convey employment policies and procedures. Safety issues have been one of the biggest concerns expressed in our study.

• Cultural differences appear to pose obstacles to employers in the areas of timeliness, clothing, and certain religious practices. Some learned not to assume homogeneity among the immigrant population, noting that Somalis display a range of religious expression, modes of dress, and punctuality.

• Tension between African immigrant and other employees, as well as that between ethnic Somalis and Somali Bantu refugees, was cited as a disincentive to émigré employment.

Some of these are problems for many low-skill people: the ridiculous need to fill out applications online, and educational requirements that are irrelevant to the job.  The language problems are serious, as are the cultural ones. These are things that should be the responsibility of the resettlement agencies, but which are almost invariably left to the resettlement cities, local agencies and employers to solve. English language lessons should be part of the requirements for the resettlement agencies. Here are the recommendations of the study’s authors:

Best Practices and Further Suggestions:

• Mediators such as the Adult Learning Center, the Career Center and Catholic Charities have been essential in facilitating the employment process.

• Both employers and employees recommend multiplying the types of acceptable application procedures and prerequisites. This includes demonstrating one’s ability through pictures, using trained translators, and revising hiring requirements such as for the GED, English language skills, or computer literacy. Accepting prior work experience as evidence of employability, and accepting alternative forms of recommendations, could assist in this effort.

• Examples of successful training programs included hands-on sessions, online courses, and establishing conversation partners on site.

• Using well-trained cultural brokers to assist in safety, policy, employment rights, and diversity awareness workshops was highly recommended.

There’s a job category with a bright future: “cultural broker.” And there’s a great opportunity for “community organizers” to step in. I hope instead they use people from the local Somali population who have learned to speak English.  Here is a summary of the benefits of overcoming the barriers:


As a large percentage of Maine’s workforce will approach retirement age in the next few years, recent Somali immigrants potentially could fill our employment gap. Moreover, as ten percent of our population, we need to employ members of this group, they need the wages, are willing to work hard at entry level positions, will bring diversity to our workplaces, will work flexible hours, can broaden our customer base as well as our employment pool, and will prove to be loyal employees committed to their employers.

What about that “tension between African immigrant and other employees, as well as that between ethnic Somalis and Somali Bantu refugees”? This is a summary, so there might be more in the report itself. It would seem to deserve some explanation, given the major problems in Greeley, Shelbyville, and Emporia, which Ann has reported on at length.

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