Kheir Mugwaneza and Elie Kihonia speaking at a Pittsburgh Connector event.

For immigrants who worked as skilled professionals in their home countries, arriving in a new place with no connections can be difficult and disorienting.

The new Pittsburgh Connector program hopes to make it easier for skilled workers arriving here to meet locals who share the same professions.

The concept is simple but potentially life-changing for those who get involved: In order to qualify, an immigrant, refugee or international student must be able to communicate in English, have some level of professional experience and be eligible to work in the U.S. Applicants who meet those standards will be matched with a professional in their field for a 30-minute conversation.

There is no guarantee of a job or even solid leads for jobs. But after the initial meeting, the Pittsburgh-based professional will then make introductions to three similarly skilled individuals, who in turn will introduce the newcomer to three more people. Slowly, the new resident begins building a network of contacts and gets an inside view of the local landscape.

“There are far too many barriers for foreign-born professionals to really advance,” says Betty Cruz, director of the Change Agency, which is administering the program. Ideally, this program will take care of the barrier that comes from not knowing anyone here.

Cruz says similar programs have proven to be popular in Canada and been implemented in Detroit and St. Louis.

As Pittsburgh’s program begins, the first step is finding the right people who are willing to help job seekers.

“We’re taking a lot of time on the back end to make sure it’s the right 30-minute connection. Because it’s not a mentorship program,” Cruz says. “It’s not necessarily designed to be an ongoing dialogue with the individual. Certainly, if people get along and they want to continue to grab a coffee together, they’re more than welcome to. But on our end, it’s about making that right first introduction.”

It’s also incumbent upon the person seeking work to come to the first meeting prepared with a list of goals and questions for their connection.

Cruz emphasizes that the program isn’t limited to any one type of foreign-born job seeker: “It’s not just about the engineers and the scientists and the doctors. It’s also about people with a range of skills,” she says. “There are also professionals with varying degrees and backgrounds who would be a tremendous value to our workforce and economy.”

Syrian immigrant and program participant Tarek Domat speaking at the Program Launch on June 7.

Recent research shows notably fewer immigrant residents in Pittsburgh compared to similarly sized cities.

According to New American Economy, which is a group of Republican, Democratic and Independent mayors and business leaders who support immigration reforms that will help create jobs for Americans, there are approximately 80,600 immigrant residents in the Pittsburgh metro area. That’s about 3.4 percent of our population. These immigrants paid $918 million in taxes and have a spending power of $2.3 billion.

Compare that to St. Louis, with a similar metro population (2.8 million to Pittsburgh’s 2.4): They have 122,000 immigrants benefitting their economy by paying $1.1 billion in taxes, with a spending power of $3 billion.

“If we want to grow — and it’s not just about population growth — if want to grow in terms of revitalizing neighborhoods that have felt a bleeding out because folks have moved out of those areas,” Cruz says, and “if we want to close our workforce gap … there’s a correlation between being more welcoming and increasing your foreign-born population and addressing those needs and gaps.”

Beyond the economic implications, there’s another reason why the Pittsburgh Connector can be important. Cruz, who is from Miami, has noticed the deep ties people in the region have to their neighborhoods and communities and thinks “there’s a beauty to that.”

The idea for the Pittsburgh Connector is to translate that pride into making the area more welcoming for everyone.

“Pittsburghers are very helpful,” Cruz says. “There’s a friendliness, and I’ve always said a scrappiness, a fighting spirit an authenticity to Pittsburgh that’s part of its charm. But that only goes so far. We still tend to look around at what we know and what we’re familiar with in our networks. I really think that’s true to a certain degree in any city.

In any city, the person who is most connected will always have better odds at succeeding, she says, and that success will benefit the whole community. But in a close-knit place like Pittsburgh, those connections are even more vital.

Rege Behe

Rege Behe is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor. A native of Trafford, Pa., he's covered school board meetings, reviewed concerts, and interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winners including Michael...