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Jump-starting careers in a new country

Alma Besserdin sits in front of a white wall and smiles into the camera. She wears a blue blouse and black glasses.
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Alma Besserdin helps female immigrants in Australia find a job that matches their qualifications.

Alma Besserdin knows from experience just how hard it can be to start over in a new country. She was a practising lawyer in Bosnia until the civil war forced her to flee to Melbourne in 1991 with nothing but two suitcases, a basic grasp of the English language and a law degree that didn’t count for much in the Australian legal system.

Now, nearly 30 years later, she’s using her story to help others: as the founder and director of Wimmigrants, Alma helps immigrants – specifically women – continue along their career paths or employ their skills to explore new avenues.

When she’s not running her organisation, which she founded in 2015, she’s usually advising various companies in the fields of HR, change management, leadership and culture change – an activity that has been part of her job description since 2016. Alma is also an expert when it comes to bringing more diversity to companies and making them more inclusive. Despite the massive changes society has undergone in the past 30 years, Alma knows that the challenges immigrants face in Australia have remained the same, and she is dedicated to making them a little easier to overcome.

She’s Mercedes: Mrs Besserdin, which challenges do migrants face when they want to establish either their old career or even a new one in a new country?

Alma Besserdin: Many migrants lack a network to help them integrate in their new country. There is also a “cultural shock” when they first arrive, as everyone has different values, beliefs and ways of doing things. Building relationships takes time, and often women sacrifice their career to stay at home with children whilst their husbands look for a job. When you are new, getting to know people – and more importantly getting people to know you – is critical for establishing a career path. It is easy to feel displaced and rejected when you don’t have any connections and you keep getting turned down for jobs. I felt like that myself in the first year of migrating to Australia – totally displaced, not knowing what my transferable skills were so I could start working in a different field.

How did you figure out how to tackle these challenges and make your own way?

I got to know my local council and attended different professional and social events. I wanted to establish friendships and better understand Australian culture. I also enrolled in a postgraduate study in human resource management and industrial relations, where I met other people, mainly Australians. I remember I was the only one in the entire class for whom English was a second language, but I took every opportunity that came my way. I volunteered in a training and development organisation for three months just to get a reference, and from there I started approaching recruiters, and one thing led to another.

Looking back, what would you say is the most important lesson your experience has taught you? And how did you manage to come out of this difficult situation stronger than before?

The key is communication. Whilst we are all different and may speak different languages, deep down we want to connect and feel appreciated. I always tried to connect on a personal level and build trust with others. When I look back now, I can say that I was given every possible opportunity to succeed. I had some amazing jobs where I was recruited as the only woman, and only non-English-speaker. I was afforded those opportunities based on my skills and capabilities, not based on my cultural background.

Which changes regarding chances and conditions for emigrants in Australia’s job market have you noticed over the past 30 years?

I believe more educated, skilled migrants are coming to Australia than before. The workplace laws are much stricter now, such as minimum required salary and other conditions. With globalisation, I believe we now have more international students, some of which will go back to their home country, and some of which will stay in Australia. The Migration Council of Australia’s latest report reveals that in 2050, Australians will be better educated and more productive, and our economy will be a trillion dollars stronger, thanks to migration. Having said that, migrants still experience the same challenges as I did nearly 30 years ago, which are a lack of support finding work and integrating into our society.

You not only consult immigrants, but also companies on how to become more diverse and inclusive. How can a company profit from hiring people from all over the world and with different cultural backgrounds?

In today’s global economy and rapid advancements in technology, I believe we all belong to one big “global workplace”. As such, our mindset has to change to adapt to global thinking. If we recruit only people from the same community, we miss out on diversity and richness of ideas, which results in organisations not maximising their productivity. According to a 2017 study published in Harvard Business Review, cognitively diverse teams solve problems faster than teams of cognitively similar people. And according to the “Diversity Matters” report from McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. We also need to build a workplace conducive to and celebratory of diversity, as diversity itself is not enough.

Alma uses the following six steps in all her coaching and mentoring programmes helping skilled migrants accelerate their careers:

  • 1. Define your personal brand – Define your value proposition, your strengths, your values and beliefs. What do you stand for? Be clear about what you offer.

  • 2. Adopt the right mindset for success – If you believe you will never succeed in a new country, then you probably will not. Your mindset is an integral part of your success. Your attitudes will be translated into your behaviour and your actions. We must examine our beliefs and values to understand if they are working for us, if they will help us with career and life success. Choose values and beliefs which will help you move towards your goals.

  • 3. Integrate culturally – Be open-minded and meet others who don’t come from your own background. Learn how things are done around your new environment. Lots of migrants join their own communities, which is understandable because we all want to belong to a “tribe” and being in our community may help us deal with this new environment. At the same time, sticking too close to our own “tribe” can also inhibit us from learning new things and adjusting to our new environment.

  • 4. Tap into the hidden job market – Certainly in Australia, a vast number of jobs are not advertised. Therefore, it is important to establish relationships with recruitment agencies. They need to get to know you.

  • 5. Prepare well for interviews – This is why step 1 and 2 are so important. Before you look for the job, it is important to know yourself really well: How are you right for the job, how are your values aligned with the organisational values, etc. Research the company, their annual report, goals, culture, leadership and so on.

  • 6. Establish a professional network – Some of the ways to establish a network are connecting with recruiters, joining professional associations, connecting with other professionals via LinkedIn, searching for people in a similar industry, being active on social media and following people and companies that interest you, subscribing to news alert and updates, going to alumni events, meeting other professionals and industry representatives, and joining conferences to meet other professionals and upgrade your knowledge.