Employer Services Representative Toils to Help Refugees

In this interview, an employer services representative with the Florida Retirement System shares what it is like to specialize in the needs of refugees. She often catches people off-guard with her ability to speak both English and Spanish fluently because she is not Hispanic; however, her language skills uniquely equip her to make a lasting difference in the lives of refugees.

What is your job title?
I am an Employer Services Representative. My work focuses on refugee employment and training.

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?
My ethnicity is mixed, and my gender is female. In South Florida, I think it has hurt me because I look more like the Irish or Scottish part of my family and the fact that I am fully bilingual (English and Spanish) is not often comprehended because of the lightness of my skin and my blue and green eyes. It helps me sometimes as well because most people don’t think I speak Spanish and I catch them talking about things, and they don’t know that I understand, so I hear things that I am not supposed to (this only works for a while, until they get to know me.)

I have experienced every kind of discrimination imaginable. I have been discriminated against because I am too young, too thin, not Jewish, not Hispanic, too old, too heavy, over-educated, not black, a Christian; I never really responded publicly other than to stand on my own strengths and to just write off those people that have bias that is so blatant (who needs them?). I speak another language, and it has been helpful in my career because I “look” American and it seems to make those people in South Florida who speak English as a first language more comfortable when they deal with another “American”, but by the same token, I am able to work with Latin Americans with the same level of comfort. Many times I am able to act as the broker between workers who only speak English and those who only speak Spanish.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
There is really no “typical day” in my work. My work entails some routine tasks, such as performing a weekly synopsis of Labor Market News for upper management and submitting reports detailing exactly how many help wanted ads were posted on all job boards (using a proprietary web spidering program). In addition to that, I create all types of reports and do research on all types of topics (most related to the job market and various industries). For instance, I recently did research on all of the health professions in Florida and what it takes to get a license in these fields to do a proposal for people in the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program to get their credentials in the United States once they receive their parole.

I attend regular Refugee Task Force Meetings and recently got to hear first hand the stories of one of the Ladies in White and of a representative from one of the “75” from the Dark Spring Incident in 2003. I get to interface regularly with the key representatives of organizations in the area who assist refugees with legal, health, education, social service, and other important services. I also provide technical assistance to Refugee Providers of Employment and Training Services in the South Florida area on a wide range of issues. I attend regular Performance Improvement Team Meetings with representatives of the providers and give a monthly Labor Market “Power Shot” to keep them current on new businesses in the area which they might want to target for refugee employment. I don’t know if there are any common misunderstandings about what I do, but I guess I am perceived as a “paper pusher” – and that is not what I am at all. I am a fact-finding, number-crunching, resource-providing person. One of my providers calls me the “Queen of Statistics”.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
I am totally a ten when it comes to enthusiasm about my job satisfaction; I give 100 percent every day. Our clients and participants are people who have given up their lives to come to the United States, and they need our services in order to become self-sufficient. In addition, the bad economy has delivered a second blow to them because they are now competing with native U.S. Citizens for entry levels jobs.

In order to unleash more enthusiasm, I would like to be included in more upper level meetings and decisions and be trained more fully in the budgeting and contract aspects of the program. I would like to be delegated more authority in times when it is appropriate. I see other administrators in other programs working side by side, but my supervisor does not include me in meetings, share information, or attempt to train me in any lateral functions of my position.

If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
This job definitely moves my heart; working with refugee clients touches me in a way that makes me want to take them in and give them the clothes off my back as well as the money out of my wallet. These clients have left their homes and their families and given up everything that they have ever known to come to the United States and start a new life. I realize that I can’t do that with every client, but I can become as knowledgeable as possible about the resources and services that they can access, so they can become self-sufficient as soon as possible. They have to re-learn everything and start from scratch. Talk about discrimination: they often experience the ultimate in discrimination, but they are so strong, so stoic.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
When people look at me and see me interact, they often assume that I live some kind of princess lifestyle, but that is far from true. I have had my own share of issues in my life, including job changes, health issues, family problems, financial trials, etc. I have a Doctorate in Education, but I got that the hard way: I worked my way through school and got tuition reimbursement from the school board. (I taught all day and went to school at night) I took nine credits per year (exactly how many they would reimburse me for) and therefore it took me 11 years to get my doctorate. I finished my dissertation while on maternity leave with my second child.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I got started working with Refugee Employment and Training when the economy changed in 2008. I was working as a dental hygienist and the practice that I was working in was seeing too many cancellations and not enough patient bookings. My employer was calling and telling me to either not come in or go home early, etc. I couldn’t live like that. I had twenty-three years in the Florida Retirement System and started applying for positions in the FRS. The position that I applied for was “Administrator I – Career Laddering”. I didn’t really know what it was all about until after I started, but I went with it and it has worked out great. I have a degree in Vocational/Technical Education and many years of teaching On-The-Job Training so there are many transferable skills. I owe my present situation to a Human
Resource Manager with great insight.

I wouldn’t really change anything, except I would try to learn more about the organizational culture and who does what. When I first came here, I made some assumptions about things based on my past experiences and they were way off. I also experienced some bullying on this job when I first came here, and it took me too long to nip it in the bud. I didn’t see it coming – it blindsided me. I was too naive and I shouldn’t have been. I wasn’t prepared for the cliques and jealousy – over what?

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
Like I said, when I came to work here (for the government) the organizational culture was much different than what I had experienced in private industry and even with the school system. It took me a while to figure it out. There were a few people who were threatened by me and thought I was trying to take their job, just because I was being myself. I had to learn to back off and be a little less assertive to fit in. They were saying that it was a team, but I soon figured out it wasn’t. There was a lot of backstabbing going on. There were these two women in particular (who apparently had been running the show for a long time) who were just loud and argumentative and were not going to let anyone new come in and show them up. I cried, I got angry and then I just went away, gave up, sat in my cubicle and did my job and went home. I stay away from them now; for some reason, management likes these loud, argumentative women and puts up with them.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
I have learned that it is so not about me. It may not be about the work always, but it is not about me. Social skills may be more important in some work situations than actual technical or work skills. You can be the smartest and most educated person in the world, but if you don’t get along with your coworkers, you will not be successful at your job.

Sadly, you also have to CYA (Cover Your Bottom.) Document everything. Try to make a work friend that you have in every meeting and go everywhere with so that no one can say that you did this or that and you always have an alibi.

Ask for directions in writing; get things approved by your supervisor.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
I have been accused of things that I haven’t done; I have been accused of saying things that I haven’t said. I have a lady who used to sit next to me that waxed her mustache, painted her toenails, and did all types of unprofessional things at work (I asked to be moved).

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I get up and go to work each day because I am a small part of a large picture, and no matter how small my part, if I don’t do what I need to do, clients will be not served adequately and people will ultimately suffer.

I felt really proud when I went out to a Refugee Center to train one day and the Case Manager just threw me straight in and set me up to interview clients. One of the clients that I interviewed was a former government liaison in a foreign country. He had some barriers to overcome (child care and his wife’s work hours). A few months later, I saw him interviewing for a job at our headquarters. He got the job and became very successful with the agency.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
The type of challenges that I face are people around me that have gotten into a rut and don’t take their job seriously; they are surfing the Internet, paying their bills, selling Mary Kay at work, spending more time on break than at work, taking advantage whenever they can (and the supervisor turns the other way.) There are people that absolutely don’t do any work all day or come late, leave early and don’t seem to be accountable. I don’t buy into it most days. My manager has a saying that I can only be responsible for what I can control; this is my own behavior. So I only worry about myself and my own work, my own standards.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
My job is only as stressful as I let it be. If I get stressed out, I get up and go take a walk around the building, try to schedule a day out in the field (being with the clients always helps), or take a mental health day. If I get really, really stressed out, I schedule a spa day or a long weekend at a hotel, sometimes alone.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
I have made $40,000 with no raise for the past three years – even taking concessions due to budgetary problems. No, I am not paid enough. I have a Doctorate and thirty plus years of experience, and I am working at an entry-level job. I get very down about it sometimes; there is little hope for a promotion or salary increase. I will probably retire at, or near, this salary. I have to shop at Thrift Stores for clothes, I can barely feed my family. My husband and both sons (twenty and twenty-four) are out of work. The twenty-four-year-old has an engineering degree and graduated in 2009. My husband got laid off in June and we are eating away at our savings. I rarely eat dinner. I now have to pay our health insurance from my check and take home about $335.00 per week.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
I usually take a week to two weeks, but now we can not really afford to go anywhere and if we do go somewhere (we own a timeshare) we can’t really afford to go out to eat or out to entertainment. We have to drive (can’t afford airfare, etc).

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
The position requires a bachelor’s degree and some experience in sales, education, or marketing.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
It is a good entry-level position. But the ways things are with government today, it is risky coming into this type of position because last hired, first fired. (I think I am safe for now, but not really sure.)

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
If I could write my own ticket, I would like to apply for and receive a promotion to a management position making $65,000 to $85,000 yearly (not exempt) in the Florida Retirement System, preferably outside of the Miami area. I would like to work close to home and be able to have a work environment in which people were congenial and happy.

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