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CLASH OF CULTURES IN THE JOB MARKET Preparation can ease a foreigner's way into workplace


Pure anxiety took 10 pounds off Natasha Goberman during her first month of work at a Baltimore lingerie store 11 years ago.

"I was so nervous, I didn't speak the language, I didn't understand half of what was told me about what to do," recalls Ms. Goberman, who emigrated from Leningrad in 1979 and now owns her own shop, Giselle Fitted Lingerie, in Mount Washington. "When customers came up to me, I didn't know how to help them."

Starting a new job is hard enough when you're a native-born American. But the difficulties multiply when you're a foreigner who must adjust to major differences in language and culture.

That's a challenge faced daily by the estimated 16,000 immigrants and refugees who arrive in Maryland each year from countries such as Vietnam, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union. Many of these foreigners are accustomed to work environments far different from what they find here.

Immigrants who hail from socialist countries, for example, may be disheartened to learn about the heavy competition for employment here.

"Sometimes it's hard for people to realize that even though you're an honest, willing, hard-working person, a job isn't automatic," said Pat Hatch, executive director of the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network, a non-profit organization in Columbia that helps resettle Howard County immigrants and refugees.

Easing your way into the work force may take time and effort, but it's not impossible. Here are some pointers, courtesy of local job placement counselors:

* Learn as much English as you can before you apply for a job. "The better English skills you have, the better your chances are of securing and moving up in a job," said Harryet Wallace, a FIRN job placement counselor.

Every semester, the New Community College of Baltimore offers English classes for foreign-born residents. These classes are free for refugees. For information, call 396-1904.

If you need to start working right away and can't take an intensive English course, sign up for evening classes. You'll also find that you pick up a lot of English on the job.

* Consider enrolling in other types of courses, particularly accreditation programs, if you can afford them. When Cong Nguyen and Tam Ha of Vietnam first came to Columbia from a refugee camp in the Philippines in 1987, they washed dishes in a French restaurant to support themselves and their daughter.

After obtaining a certificate from RETS Technical Center in Baltimore, Mr. Nguyen landed a job repairing air conditioning and ventilation systems for the Columbia Inn two years ago. Ms. Ha, who enrolled in a hair styling school, now works in a barbershop. The couple's 8-year-old daughter, My Nguyen, plans to become a doctor. "If she tries, she'll make it," Mr. Nguyen said.

According to Ms. Hatch, reaccreditation is often necessary for professionals who are looking for work in their fields.

* Network with friends or relatives to find employment, said Sheri Conklin, a case manager for refugee services at Associated Catholic Charities. Ask everyone you meet if they know of any job openings.

* Don't pass over a low-level job for fear of being stuck in it forever. Unlike some countries where people tend to stay in one position for most of their lives, workers in the United States frequently move up within their organizations or change jobs. Chances are that once you get your foot in a company's door, you'll find opportunities for mobility. Besides, most job placement counselors agree that any kind of job experience you get is useful, because it teaches you about the American world of work.

* When making up a resume, limit it to experiences that are pertinent to the job you're looking for. Type the resume and have someone check it for mistakes.

* Before calling an employer, practice your telephone approach with a friend or a relative. You should be able to introduce yourself, to inquire about the position, and to set up an interview with some degree of fluency.

* Dress appropriately for the interview, wearing neat, attractive clothes.

* Make sure you obtain detailed, accurate directions to the job interview. Arriving there a few minutes early will lend you an air of promptness and efficiency, and will also give you time to gather your thoughts before the interview begins.

* Look the interviewer in the eye when you speak to him. In some countries, making eye contact is considered impolite or disrespectful, but in the United States, it's a sign of honesty and forthrightness. Also, be assertive and positive about your qualifications. "Sometimes it's hard for people to speak well about themselves, because of cultural modesty, but it's necessary here," said Ms. Hatch.

* If you're asked for your salary requirements when filling out a job application, write "Open," advised Ms. Wallace. When the issue is brought up during the interview, ask about the salary range and pick something in the middle (assuming, of course, that the salary is something you can live on). If you propose a salary on your own, you run the risk of aiming lower than the employer would have offered -- or pricing yourself out of consideration. Find out as much as you can about typical salaries for the position before you go to the interview.

* If, during the interview, you see a problem that will interfere with your ability to do the job, such as obtaining transportation to the work site, don't immediately turn down the position. Go home and try to figure out ways around the problem. Refuse the position only after you've explored all such options.

* Don't forget the value of medical benefits when choosing between jobs. The job that pays the lower salary but offers good medical coverage is probably a better bet than one paying heftier wages but no benefits.

"We've had people who have incurred really big medical expenses and have had no way to pay them," said Ms. Wallace. "Some people don't realize that if they get sick, they won't be covered by the government."

* Once you've started a new job, don't be afraid to ask your employer to repeat something that you haven't understood. "Most employers would rather repeat a direction than have you do something wrong," said Peg Conley, supervisor of refugee services at the Associated Catholic Charities.

* If you get sick and can't go to work, call your supervisor and tell him. Call him each day that you remain sick. "A lot of people seem to feel that if they've called in one day and said they're sick, they don't need to do it again," said Ms. Hatch, noting that "employers like to be informed of your situation on a daily basis."

* Try not to quit a job until you've already secured a second one. "We've had people quit a job because they heard about a good job down the street, and then they didn't get that job," said Ms. Wallace. If you decide to leave your job, notify your employer of your decision and offer to continue working for a few weeks.

* Don't take it personally if a job doesn't come quickly, said Ms. Wallace. With the economy still in the doldrums, no one is having much luck right now.

Alyssa Gabbay is a free-lance writer who often covers business issues for The Sun.


Here are some local resources for immigrants and refugees seeking job counseling:

I?* Maryland Job Services. Call 333-5353 for the closest office.

* Foreign Born Information and Referral Network. Call 992-1923.

* Jewish Vocational Service. Call 466-3300.

* Associated Catholic Charities. Call 547-5508.

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