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Berna Altok tells part of her journey to the U.S. from Turkey at a press conference on the morning of Jan. 15, 2020. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.
Berna Altok tells part of her journey to the U.S. from Turkey at a press conference on the morning of Jan. 15, 2020. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.

Philadelphia wants to connect more employers with its immigrant talent

The Engaging Immigrant Talent initiative is a new partnership between the city’s Office of Workforce Development and the Welcoming Center for New…

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In 2016, something happened in Berna Altok’s life that she’d always wanted: she got a U.S. green card through its lottery system. 

Back in her home country of Turkey, Altok graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree and had spent several years as a procurement specialist for many companies.

But the opportunity to come to the U.S. was once-in-a-lifetime, so she made the jump without looking back.

“I left everything behind and moved to Philadelphia by myself,” said Altok.

Her first jobs in Philly were in an ice cream shop and clothing store, which she held down while applying to professional jobs in her field.

Unlike in Turkey, where her education and experience would get her a job almost anywhere, Altok found it difficult to even get a response to the applications she sent after she moved here. 

“The situation encouraged me to do some search to find out if I’m doing something wrong or not,” she said. “I had five years of experience, I had the chance to do this job anywhere in the world, so what is the problem?”

Altok’s experience is one familiar to a lot of immigrants that come to the U.S. with degrees from foreign universities looking to continue their professional careers. 

Many struggle finding similar employment, whether it be because they’re not used to the U.S. work culture, or because U.S. employers don’t take their degrees and experiences as seriously as someone homegrown and educated in the U.S. 

“I need to be honest, I lost a lot of faith,” said Altok.

But at her lowest point, Altok found the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and its International Professionals Program

It is an eight-week intensive training program that teaches eligible immigrants everything about the U.S. employment process — from resume writing and interviewing, to building a professional network and career planning.

At first, Altok couldn’t participate because of her busy work schedule, but was able to complete the program in 2018.

After that, she took part in the Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Fellowship program, which finally landed her a job with the City of Philadelphia as a technician in the Office of Procurement.

“I was me again,” said Altok.

With Altok’s story in mind and the successes of many other immigrants who have gone to the  Welcoming Center for professional help, Philadelphia’s Office of Workforce Development announced its Engaging Immigrant Talent initiative on Jan. 15.

The initiative is an 18-month partnership between the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and the Office of Workforce Development that represents a first step in developing a citywide immigrant workforce strategy.

“City government has a critical role to play in improving equitable outcomes for all our residents,” said Mayor Jim Kenney at a press conference announcing the initiative on Jan. 15. “Increasing opportunities for Philadelphia’s extraordinary and diverse immigrant population is key to realizing the goals outlined in our citywide workforce development and inclusive growth strategies.”

It starts by encouraging more employers to partner with organizations like the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians in order to tap into the wealth of immigrant talent present in the city.

Employers are encouraged to register with the Welcoming Center to begin the process.

This initial stage in the overall development of an immigrant workforce strategy is funded by a $242,000 grant from the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund.

“This initiative showcases the economic and social impact that can be achieved when you bring together municipal leadership, an outstanding nonprofit service provider, talented immigrant and refugee workers, and committed employers,” said Monica Munn, senior director of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund.

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