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Overcoming cultural barriers in the workplace

17 December 20140 comments
Ali, former AMES SPMP student

Ali, former AMES SPMP student

When his boss fired up the barbecue at the site of a massive engineering project in outback Queensland and cooked lunch for everyone, Iranian professional migrant Ali suffered what he calls ‘culture shock’.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said the 39-year-old mechanical engineer.

“This would never happen in Iran or in other countries in Asia or the Middle East where I have worked,” he said.

“I am used to working in very hierarchical situations where the boss is the boss and he is addressed by his professional title.

“So when our project manager cooked us a barbecue it was a real shock – but a good shock. It was also instructive because I realised and I said to myself ‘things are different here and I need to know how they work’,” Ali says.

Ali’s story illustrates the unique nature of Australian workplace culture and the challenges it presents for newly arrived professional migrants.

Around 130,000 people arrived in Australia as skilled migrants in 2012-2013 and about 10 per cent of these – or 13,000 people, mostly from non-English speaking backgrounds – have had trouble finding work appropriate to their training, according to ABS figures.

And only 53 per cent of migrants who come to Australia under the Skilled Migrant Program ultimately work in the same occupation they nominated as immigrants.

According to the 2006 Census, up to 40 per cent of tertiary qualified migrants aged between 25 and 34 and 38 per cent of those aged 35 to 54 were in low or medium skilled occupations.

Initially, Ali was one of these. He says he was not prepared to enter the job market in Australia when he first arrived.

“I expected that it would be easy to get a job because I had 12 years’ experience in very large power generation projects in Iran. But it wasn’t like that at all,” he said.

“I found that I didn’t know the things I needed to know to get a job in Australia. I had been sending resumes out but receiving negative responses.

“I needed some help with my resume, with my verbal communications skills and with some knowledge of the job market,” Ali said.

A friend advised Ali to undertake the Skilled Professional Migrant Program (SPMP) run by education and settlement agency AMES in Melbourne.

The SPMP course aims to bridge the cultural divide faced by some migrants relaunching their careers in Australia. As well as giving students job hunting skills, it introduces them to Australian workplace culture and all of the customs and norms that come with it.

“I found the course was very useful; it helped me a lot with my resume, interview techniques and with the importance of networking,” Ali said.

After completing the course, Ali secured a job on a large scale power generation construction project in Queensland.

“It was an exciting job and very interesting,” Ali said.

Ali says that securing a job was one challenge but keeping it and fitting in with his work mates was another.

“I remember on my first day someone walked past my desk and said ‘Hey Ali’. I was surprised and I thought it was very rude. I talked to my boss about what had happened and he explained to me that it was normal – it was just banter and meant in fun,” Ali said.

“It took a while for me to understand this but I remembered the SPMP course and I got good advice from my colleagues and I came to see it was not bullying or discrimination.

“But for some people this might be a bigger issue. It might have a negative impact and make people isolated and disconnected from their colleagues,” Ali said.

He says that patience and communication are the key factors in overcoming these barriers in the workplace.

“If you just talk about these things you can sort them out and you need to take time to understand what is happening around you.

“You need to realise that even choosing the wrong word can lead to a misunderstanding – but with time and by talking to people you can achieve a situation where you fit in to a new culture and a new and different workplace,” Ali said.

Research into the effectiveness of the SPMP course has found it is succeeding in getting newly arrived skilled migrants into jobs that fit their qualifications or experience.

The research found that after completing SPMP, 89 per cent of students had found work and, of this group, 64 per cent were in professional jobs.

Before enrolling in the SPMP program, less than 35 per cent of participants had worked in Australia. Those who had worked were mostly in low skilled or non-professional work.

The SPMP program introduces professional migrants to Australian workplace culture and job seeking techniques. Participants receive advice about professional interviews as well as insights into Australian workplace culture.

The research report titled ‘Securing futures: making the most of migrants’ skills’, found barriers to work included: unfamiliarity with recruitment practices; a lack of professional networks and difficulty growing them; little knowledge of Australian workplace culture; and, difficulties having qualifications recognised.

One of the study’s authors, social scientist Monica O’Dwyer, said the research showed small interventions could make a difference in helping newly arrived professionals into work in Australia.

She said a national program driven by governments would yield increased productivity and better outcomes for professional migrants.

“Attracting people with professional skills and qualifications is a significant objective of Australia’s immigration program. But in many cases these skills are going unused and we are missing out on potentially productive people who can bring new perspectives and unique problem solving skills,” Ms O’Dwyer said.

“We are seeing many of these professional migrants accepting jobs outside their skill sets or in roles well below their actual capacities,” she said.

She said programs like SPMP could help harness the skills and experience of professional migrants.

“Our research shows these kinds of programs are effective in giving professional migrants and insight into and some experience of what it takes to get a job in Australia,” Ms O’Dwyer said.

Helen Matovu-Reed
AMES Staff Writer