Hard Working: Competing for a Job

February 25, 2009

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New immigrants to the U.S. are struggling in this recessionary economy. According to federal employment data, analyzed for WBEZ by researcher Rob Paral, foreign-born immigrants who arrived since 2000 have a significantly higher rate of unemployment than both immigrants who've been here longer and people born in the U.S. As part of our series Hard Working we hear about a new immigrant from China, and the tough competition she faces to get work.

LIAO: I came here from China 2 years ago. My name is Kara Liao.

Kara is a permanent resident of the United States. I meet with her at the Chinese American Service League, or CASL. It's a non-profit organization in Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood.

Ricky Lam, who is the manager of the employment and training department there, and Stacy Wong, Kara's employment counselor, join us.

KARA: I took 4 months chefs training program….

STACEY AND RICKY: Yeah…you're doing good…Yes…you're doing good.

Kara has two daughters; one is 4 years old, the other is just 9 months. Through Ricky, she tells me her husband has a job at a windows and doors company. She hasn't worked since she came to the U.S. two years ago.

KARA translated by RICKY: She says this is a huge impact to her family…because her husband doesn't earn a huge amount of money in her job. Kara feels that if she can find a job she can support her family. Her family will be improved in living conditions.

If Kara gets a job, her father-in-law, who's also in Chicago, will take care of the kids.
 
Kara recently finished the chef training program at CASL. It's a 4 month class that's free for very low income Chicagoans and helps them learn English and food prep skills. Twelve hundred people have gone through the program. As recently as last year, about 80 percent of graduates were able to find work. But not this year…

STACY: I can see day by day it is…we are all working so hard to find job opportunity from different industry.

That's Stacy Wong. She helps Kara find possible jobs online and in newspaper listings, and is encouraging her to take more English classes. Stacey says in the past a graduate of the training program might make on average $11 an hour. A student without language barriers could make $16. But those jobs are hard, if not impossible, for new immigrants like Kara to find now. There are more people, with more experience, competing for jobs Kara is applying for:

STACY: Some of the higher industry workers might get laid off. They have no language barrier, they have a lot of skill…so you can imagine.

When I met with Kara, she was headed to an interview at Loyola for a job serving college kids pizza. It would pay $8.80 an hour.

STACY: She is so confident…that she'll go for the interview. Optimistic, too. We wish her the best for her future employment.

As of yesterday she hadn't heard back. Kara says she feels a lot of pressure, a lot of stress about not having a job. But when I ask if she would have still come to the U.S., knowing what she knows now about the economy, she doesn't hesitate.

KARA translated by RICKY: She says she likes to come to the U.S. because she has more human rights in the U.S. And government takes care of low income family like them. They provide a lot of opportunity and supports to them so she feels that her decision is correct.

And she says, the most important reason she came is for her daughters. She hopes they'll get a good education and can one day find jobs that they like.

Related: More from the Hard Working series
Related: Unemployment rates in the U.S. [pdf]

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