Skilled Soviets feel pinch of job market here


The basement offices of the Jewish Vocational Service circle around in a labyrinth of hallways one might imagine in a typical Soviet bureaucracy -- except with more posters and plants. Alexander Katsnelson must feel right at home.

The 34-year-old computer programmer from Minsk, six weeks in the United States, has just come from his first job interview in America. Dressed nattily in a black herringbone suit maybe a half-size too big, he relates his experience in tentative English.

"Did you understand everything he was saying?" JVS job counselor Lynn Katzen asks him. She then rephrases the question more slowly.

"About half," Mr. Katsnelson says with a shy smile. "But I try to understand all questions he was asking me."

Mr. Katsnelson couldn't have picked a worse time to break into Baltimore's job market. The recession that hit the mid-Atlantic region with gale force about six months ago accompanied a tidal wave of Soviet immigrants.

And the Soviets coming to Baltimore face a raft of dispiriting obstacles: the language barrier, differences in work experience and the culture shock of trying to market themselves in a capitalist society.

Despite extensive support from social service agencies, social workers and volunteers agree that the chances of, say, a Soviet engineer finding work in his field are lower than ever.

When we get a mechanical engineer we absolutely cringe," says Barbara Barshack, director of immigrant services at the Jewish Vocational Service, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Lately there's been a lot of cringing. Engineers, architects and other scientists comprise more than one in five Soviet immigrants to the United States, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York. That's the second largest category behind "professionals" -- teachers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, artists, etc. -- who represent more than one-quarter of immigrants.

They are competing for jobs with record numbers of their compatriots. Nearly 37,000 Soviet Jews came to the United States in 1989, and another 32,000 arrived last year. About 30,000 are expected this year, and a similar number in 1992.

Baltimore accepted 657 Soviets last year, down slightly from the 718 that arrived in 1989. The JVS expects about 800 new arrivals in its 1992 fiscal year, which ends in June 1992.

Mr. Katsnelson has an edge over other immigrants. Unlike many science-oriented Soviet programmers, he knows the more popular business computer languages, such as COBOL and Fortran. His resume lists almost a dozen programs and databases that he designed and implemented for his former employers, railroad and distribution companies in Minsk.

But a search with his counselor through The Sun's thin want-ads section is a hard lesson in the laws of supply and demand.

"Baltimore doesn't need programmers," Mr. Katsnelson laments.

"Usually they do," Ms. Katzen assures him. "It's just the economy."

Even some of JVS's reliable accounts, such as Baltimore's Environmental Elements Corp., have been coming up dry lately. The waste management company has hired about a dozen Soviets over the years. New employees with weak language skills usually start out as drafters and work their way up, says Linda Young, manager of staffing and employee relations.

But lately things have been slow, Ms. Young says.

Indeed, the Baltimore area's jobless rate, at 6.6 percent, hasn't been as high since 1983.

A lack of fluent English is only one of the problems most Soviet immigrants share, but it's the biggest one by far. Particularly for the technical professions, poor English skills can mean the difference between a job in one's field or one delivering pizzas.

"Their resumes are exemplary, they're extraordinary," said Ron Bane, owner of Accurate Building Services Inc., a Baltimore mechanical contractor. "Many of them are holders of several patents. . . . But they have all that knowledge in a foreign language."

Equally daunting to the Soviets, who are accustomed to government-assigned work, is the U.S. job market and the concept of self-marketing.

That culture shock led 1989 arrival Yakov Gelfand to start courses in American business culture at the Baltimore Hebrew University.

The 65-year-old Dr. Gelfand, who taught chemical engineering at a Leningrad university, recruits Soviets and Americans from the community to teach the concept of "self-marketing," American style.

During one class, Victoria Tsitlik, a medical billing consultant and former Soviet immigrant, leads about 20 students through a job interview at the fanciful "Jewish Vocational Service of Moscow."

Acting the part of the confident American engineer looking for work in Moscow, Ms. Tsitlik prods the immigrants to list her employment problems: no conversational language skill; no knowledge of terminology; no knowledge of the Soviet codes and standards; an inability to do technical writing; no clue about where to find the "right person." The students begin to catch on.

"The problem with them is they don't prepare themselves," Ms. Tsitlik, who left Leningrad in 1976, confides later. As a result, she continues, "Ph.D. electrical scientists will end up in $6-an-hour 00 jobs as electricians."

That's better than the work Mikhail Gokhvat had to settle for after arriving with his wife, Yelena Sokolova, in Baltimore in 1990.

For months, Mr. Gokhvat, a computer programmer, cleaned equipment in a bakery and hauled vegetables in a produce warehouse.

Meanwhile, the job search and Ms. Sokolova's inability to communicate took their toll. "For a couple of months I was in a very, very hard depression," she says, and had to be treated at Sinai Hospital.

Then, in late October, she began to pick up English -- "It was for me a big, big present when I first understood the Beatles," she says. Less than a month later, her husband found a job with a Montgomery County computer company. And in May, after getting her FCC license and Society of Broadcasting Engineers card, she hooked up with Avraham Rosenblum, a singer, songwriter and rabbi who hosts the "Jewish Star" radio program Sundays at noon on WYST 1010-AM.

The last half-hour of the two-hour program is in Russian, devoted to news and events for the Russian community in Baltimore.

Ms. Sokolova is ebullient about that part of the show. "I hope my program can help Russians to know what's going on in Russia, what's going on in Israel, what's going on in our community, what we have to celebrate, how we have to celebrate," she gushes.

And in the rare moments when her former countrymen are not preoccupied with learning the language and finding a job, Ms. Sokolova hopes her program can help them become Americans in more subtle ways. "I want them to cross this ocean between American people and Russian people," she says, "between your mentality and our mentality."


First timers, hard times

The first-time job search is stressful for anyone.

Imagine how it is it for a Soviet immigrant, whose first obstacle is not the language, but the alphabet.

Three Soviet families immigrated to Baltimore recently. Their pursuit of the American dream is detailed in MBW.

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