Volume 20 Issue 3 | June 1 -7, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Jenny Chang, left, and Laura Barrera-Vega of Upwardly Global said they have had trouble getting Asian-Americans to take advantage of the group’s job services even though their office is in Chinatown.

Chinatown job group struggles to reach the Chinese

By Jennifer Milne

When Upwardly Global moved its offices to Chinatown last October, the organization thought it would be an opportunity to connect with Chinese immigrant professionals seeking jobs.

“When we came here, we were so excited,” said Laura Barrera-Vega, 27, the marketing coordinator for job seeker services. “We said, ‘this is it, we are here, we’re in Chinatown.’”

So far the group has helped only two Chinese job seekers.

But that doesn’t mean Barrera-Vega’s optimism has waned one bit – after all, she was in the place of so many immigrants to the U.S. just three years ago. She couldn’t find more than hourly jobs in restaurants and jewelry stores a year ago, and now she’s working for a non-profit that helps other immigrants find a job in their field here.

“I emigrated from Cali, Colombia, and I went through the whole process,” Barrera-Vega said. “I had panic attacks and depression. I didn’t have any contacts or networks here.”

In an effort to better reach the Chinese, Upwardly Global has worked with the only Asian-American in the City Council, John Liu of Flushing, and currently there are two Chinese clients of about 150, which Jenny Chang, 25, Upwardly Global’s employer network coordinator says is “huge.”

Chang, who is fluent in Mandarin, believes that the reason the Chinese community has been unresponsive to the group’s outreach efforts is that it’s so tightly knit. Members of the community rely on one another rather than outside support, for networking, connections and jobs, she said.

“The Chinese population has been one of the toughest immigrant communities to reach,” added Barrera-Vega. “Each community has its own way to be approached. I’ve tried to give out fliers, but it hasn’t worked well. We need to find some method of outreach the community is comfortable with.”

Upwardly Global began when founder Jane Leu toured a U.S. chicken processing plant seven years ago and was shocked by what she found. The manager offered to introduce Leu to his two best workers, and she met them -- a brain surgeon from Bosnia and an engineer from Iraq -- as they picked apart chicken carcasses on an assembly line.

Seeing immigrants working below their educational and professional levels prompted Leu to write the business plan for Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that specializes in finding immigrant professionals a job in their field. Upwardly Global, also known as UpGlo, works with job seekers to tailor their resumes and improve their interview skills, while simultaneously helping companies realize the strengths of a candidate from another country.

“We’re working on both sides of the equation,” Chang said. “We teach job seekers to write a one-page resume, and we work with H.R. staff in companies. There’s a branch of UpGlo that builds relationships with Fortune 1,000 companies, and we train recruiting staff to better interview foreign candidates.”

The organization began in San Francisco in 2000, and opened its New York satellite office in DUMBO last June. The New York office moved to 401 Broadway in October. Since its inception, Barrera-Vega says, Upwardly Global has worked with about 500 job seekers, total, in New York and San Francisco, and placed 30 in New York thus far.

Upwardly Global works with candidates from over 65 countries and focuses mainly on developing nations, like eastern Europe, Africa and southeast Asia. Staff members in the New York office speak Spanish, French, Mandarin and Wolof, an African dialect from Senegal.

Despite the problem reaching the Chinese community, staff members have met with success with other immigrant groups. Hispanics in particular, Barrera-Vega says, are receptive to the organization’s help.

“The easiest community to reach has been the Hispanic community,” she said. “Once you tell them ‘We’re here to help you,’ they want to participate.”

Barrera-Vega says Upwardly Global is the only organization in the U.S. that caters specifically to immigrant professionals and helps them find a job in their field. Potential job seekers fill out an application at, then go through an intake interview with a staff member to determine if their English is up to standard. If not, they are referred to a language center based on location and economic situation. For job seekers who are refused based on their English skills, Barrera-Vega points out that the job search is now entirely in the seeker’s hands.

“We want to bring some hope into their lives,” she said. “If you have to work on your English, it’s something you can manage. It’s something you have control over. When there’s some hope and possibilities, it’s easier to learn English.”

Another facet of Upwardly Global that helps job seekers is post-hire mentoring. Candidates are paired with a mentor working in their field throughout their job search, then receive one-on-one mentoring for an additional three months.

“The mentor becomes a direct contact besides us,” said Barrera-Vega, noting that networking is probably the biggest problem for immigrant professionals in the U.S.

Chang says a problem with networking is what stalls immigrants’ job searches.

“It’s a lack of networks, a lack of professional contacts,” said Chang. “We have a workshop that teaches networking skills. We also have a huge corps of volunteers from all different industries.”

Upwardly Global is primarily funded by foundations and corporations, like JPMorgan Chase, and receives no money from the federal government. Its annual budget has grown from $267,000 in 2005 to $1.6 million in 2007, according to managing director Nikki Cicerani. In addition, community members and job seekers are encouraged to donate to help support the free service. Prior to May 14, Upwardly Global job seekers were asked to pay a small fee of $100 for immigrants and $40 for refugees and people seeking asylum.

“We realized the fee could be misunderstood,” Barrera-Vega said. “People see the number and get scared. For outreach purposes, it was very hard. We originally had the fee as a way to engage people – in some cultures, paying for a service means a greater level of commitment from the service provider. But we had to listen to what peoples’ needs are.”

As for the future of Upwardly Global, the organization is determined to help New York’s Chinese community and continues to reach out to job seekers all over New York.

“I’m doing outreach every day and I love it,” Barrera-Vega said. “We are not only training job seekers, we are trying to change corporate America.”

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