August 10, 2021

Navigating career as a migrant

Navigating career as a migrant

Amanda Smidt reflects on her work with long-term migrants and her own journey as a migrant to New Zealand.

Our stories as migrants, although diverse in the details, share similar themes. We made the tough decision to move away from our families and the life and people we know. We were looking for an opportunity to pave the way for a better life for ourselves and our immediate families, to feel safe, to feel free to be who we are and want to be; to have hope for the future.

Twenty-two years ago, I arrived in New Zealand from South Africa. I remember feeling a mix of nervousness tinged with a sense of excitement and possibility as I touched down at Auckland International Airport. I had never really travelled except to a few neighbouring countries. This experience was quite different on so many levels, and I planned to stay. Change requires grit – and I had to dig deep for that inner confidence and strength to find my way – to tackle the challenges.  

The challenges

Many migrants, after overcoming significant challenges in their own countries, and then journeying to a new country, are confronted by several new challenges when assimilating into New Zealand. Amongst others, challenges include geography, language, culture, religion, local attitudes, work.  

From very early on in my career I knew somehow that I would draw on my own experiences to help others, and this is evident now more than ever. As a career practitioner, my focus lies with how individuals, and particularly migrants, can find decent, fulfilling work matching their qualifications and skillsets, and indeed, preferences. Migrants are constantly adapting and rethinking how they might search for work in a new environment. What strikes me and seems to be a common thread in the career stories of migrants (and indeed resonates with me as I remember my first few months here), is the despair at sending out CV after CV with little or no response. Of course, this may be familiar territory even for those who are residents/citizens of New Zealand. Initially they are applying in their field (in many cases a requirement for residency), and eventually trying other avenues that vaguely resemble their qualifications and skill sets. Consequently, preferences descending lower and lower on the scale of priorities. Why is this so?

The reality

An uncomfortable topic, and yet a very clear message at a recent meeting of refugees and migrants was their sense of ethnic bias. No matter how qualified, experienced or eager to work, they feel powerless to negate bias. Some choose to change their names to ones that are more ‘acceptable, western-sounding’ just to try and get a foot in the door. The diminishing hope is palpable as the situation becomes financially untenable for many families. Often the option of ‘giving up’ and returning ‘home’ is mooted, however fraught with challenges … “at least I know how to play in that world”. Others, for whom this is not an option, accept the ‘default’ employment options for migrants and refugees, happy to be working and earning but feeling constantly underwhelmed and dissatisfied in their work. And the longer they remain in these positions, the more challenging it is for them to explore other possibilities or even consider strategies to find fulfilling work. Furthermore, when confronted with events like the Christchurch earthquakes, or shootings, or the pandemic we are experiencing, migrants’ feelings of vulnerability are magnified.

It was encouraging, yet sobering, to read a recent Immigration New Zealand (INZ) report (National Migrant Consultations 2018) of recent migrants throughout New Zealand reflecting on their experience of settling and adjusting to life in New Zealand, and the subsequent observations of settlement stakeholder organisations (National Migrant Consultations 2018 - settlement stakeholder organisations). Employment was the area participants identified as most challenging while adjusting to living in New Zealand.

Two things come to mind for me:

One relates to employers – some are already enjoying the benefits and richness of investing in a diverse workforce. Without a way of understanding the inherent visa requirements, skills and benefits that migrants bring to the workforce, it seems some employers are left ill-equipped to appreciate and tap into this talent-pool. Seeking external support to devise an approach to career development and talent management can help employers access the immediate and longer-term potential of migrants in their workforce.  

The other is access to expert help for migrants as they navigate career in a new environment. Another blog I wrote, ‘Who am I?’, has relevance here. In it I talk about the importance of having those honest, challenging conversations with an expert to reflect first and foremost on ‘Who am I …?’ [and who I might become in this new world], so that we are better positioned to explore possibilities and create and activate meaningful strategies. I am no longer surprised when I hear, “but I had no idea this was so important when searching for jobs”. It is, and it is a critical first step not only for migrants, but for all of us as we navigate career in times of change.  

Amanda Smidt is an Executive Director at The Career Development Company