Job fair takes aim at Somali unemployment

Looking for work
Abdirasheed Yousef, right, talked to potential employers during a job fair at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

As the economy picks up across Minnesota, the state's Somali-born population continues to battle higher than average unemployment.

The most recent figures, for 2011-2013, put Somalis' unemployment at 21 percent, about three times the rate for the general population during the same period of time.

Some Somali community leaders are concerned that the lack of opportunities can fuel despair, especially among young people.

Organizers of a job fair this week in the heart of Minneapolis' largely Somali Cedar-Riverside neighborhood say they worked hard to get the word out within the community. Their efforts paid off: Twice as many job seekers showed up this year from last year.

Kadra Jama, 20, has been looking for a job for a year.

"I applied for Kmart, Walmart, Mall of America, different jobs," she said. "Still I didn't get that call. They didn't hire me."

Job seekers
Abdullani Ahmed, left, and Mohamed Abubakar, right, attended a job fair at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Mohamed Abubakar, 27, moved to Minnesota from Tennessee a month ago, but has only been able to find two days' worth of temporary jobs.

"A lot of places I applied," he said, "but they didn't call me." Abubakar said he can park cars and knows how to run a forklift.

Amano Dube, who runs the Brian Coyle Community Center, where the job fair was held, said 60 people had lined up for the event before employers even set up their tables.

"This shows how much people are hungry for a job," he said.

Dube, who came to the United States from Ethiopia, said immigrants in this neighborhood often face language barriers or lack work experience in the U.S. Some don't have the skills that employers are looking for.

Census numbers show that of Minnesota's five largest immigrant groups, Somali unemployment is the highest. More than half of the state's Somalis live in poverty.

"We have the highest unemployment rate than any other groups — including the newcomers," Mohamud Noor, Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota executive director, said in February. He was speaking at a news conference held in response to a White House address on countering violent extremism.

Social problems — including unemployment and a lack of opportunity — can fuel sympathy for international extremism, he said: "Almost 30 percent [unemployment]. Nobody's talking about that."

Noor asked what the city and other government entities were doing to close the gap. This week's job fair, sponsored by the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, was the beginning of an answer.

Job fair
The gymnasium at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis was crowded with job seekers, Mar. 31, 2015.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

A foothold in a new economy

Ibrahim Noor doesn't want people to lose hope.

Noor, who manages two workforce centers for the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development, himself is an example of someone who reinvented himself in a new country.

"In another life, I was a commercial pilot in Somalia," he said. "I worked for Somali Airlines for ten years." Since 1999, Noor, who is not related to Mohamud Noor, has worked for the state of Minnesota, helping other immigrants get a foothold in a new economy.

Noor's workforce centers provide job coaching and resume services. They're trying to get out into the community and offer help in multiple languages. That's especially important in the Somali community, he said, where there can be a hesitancy to turn to the government for help.

"The culture where they come from, it's more like a police station ... people tend to run away from the government," he said. "So [that] kind of mentality or perception still lingers for a while."

But the younger generation of Somalis, Noor said, is more comfortable navigating the American system.

Potential employers
Chief Anye Whyte, a federal agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, talked about how much he loves his job as he tried to interest people in applying.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Mohamud Noor, who leads the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, watched this week as job-seekers clustered around recruiting tables for the Department of Homeland Security, Family Dollar and Delta Global Services at the Brian Coyle Center.

He said he was pleased to see tables for the Minneapolis Police Department and Hennepin County staffed by Somali employees. But he noted the prevalence of government and nonprofit employers: "Quite honestly, I'm disappointed." he said. "I don't see the Fortune 500 here."

Marie Larson, from the city's Department of Employment and Training, said more major employers will be at the Minneapolis Convention Center for another job fair on Monday.

She's hopeful some of the 300 job-seekers who met with potential employers at the Brian Coyle Center this week will land some of the thousand jobs available.