Language and cultural barriers can make success elusive


July 08, 1991

In the Soviet Union, mechanical engineer Semyon Plotkin designed everything from conveyors, bins and hoppers to hydraulic and pneumatic drive systems. In Baltimore, he drives cars around the lot of an automobile auction company near Glen Burnie.

Despite more than a year of searching, Mr. Plotkin has found little more than unskilled service jobs. Like so many other engineers arriving in Baltimore from the Soviet Union, Mr. Plotkin's language problems and the recession have blocked him from the kind of work he did at home.

Mr. Plotkin, a short, wiry 40-year-old, and his wife, Tamara Tyktina, 34, came to Baltimore in April 1990. The lines around Mr. Plotkin's eyes are highlighted by the tan he has picked up working in the auto yard at the Baltimore-Washington Auto Exchange. His English is still not so good. When he and Ms. Tyktina first arrived they felt "deaf and mute," she says.

In his native city of Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, Mr. Plotkin spent 15 years designing and drafting complex manufacturing systems. For the last four years there, he worked for the Research Institute of Construction and Architecture.

"They need equipment, we have to sell this equipment," Mr. Plotkin says, explaining his job in Minsk. "We come to agreement," he adds, keeping a close eye on his children -- Ilya, 5, and Victoria, 4 -- as they scurry after each other in the family's Pikesville apartment, which is decorated with a hodgepodge of second-hand furniture.

The auto exchange job is not Mr. Plotkin's first in the United States -- and it probably won't be the last before he finds one he really wants.

His first job, which the Jewish Vocational Service found, was repairing vending machines for the B&G Vending Co. "But they have two mechanics and business is down," Mr. Plotkin explains.

He took jobs doing landscaping, washing dishes and delivering pizzas. (His car's transmission broke after three days on the pizza job and he said, "That's enough.") And his frustration grew.

"I think it was my mistake," Mr. Plotkin says. "I thought only about engineering design."

He sent resumes -- more than 100 of them. "I only had two interviews," one for a company in Florida. "If I have a job I will go anywhere," he assures a visitor.

Mr. Plotkin says he took the English classes and the computer-aided design classes the JVS runs through the New )) Community College of Baltimore. Then in April he started working 12- and 13-hour days at the auto exchange for three days a week, so the classes have taken a back seat for now. "It's too much when I finish work at 7."

"I will be very happy if I find a job the same as what I did in Russia," he says, his smile belying the frustration he feels about competing in a tough job market.

In the Soviet Union, if you are Jewish you don't have a lot of career options, Mr. Plotkin says. High-prestige fields such as foreign studies, law and most general business careers are closed off by policy. Becoming a doctor is difficult but not impossible.

"Because most Russian Jews want to take a profession they go to technical education," says Ms. Tyktina.

With Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of "glasnost" came the freedom to express one's views, including an increasingly virulent strain of anti-Semitism. The hapless economy once again has inspired the refrain of "blame the Jews." Ms. Tyktina's brother-in-law in Moscow mailed them an article about an anti-Semitic group which openly has called for pogroms.

"Every Jew experienced it," Ms. Tyktina said. "Every minute you can feel that you're Jewish." In the Soviet Union, Mr. Plotkin says, "What is your nationality?" really means, "Are you Jewish?"

Not all of the couple's memories of their homeland are bad. "Like a tree has roots, we have roots in Russia," he says. But, "I decided to leave for my children. Because I don't want a life like I had in Russia for my children."

Victoria climbs onto the lap of Mr. Plotkin's father, who also emigrated and lives with the family in the two-bedroom apartment. The 4-year-old doesn't know as much English as her brother, who just graduated from kindergarten at the Talmudical Academy. But the round-cheeked girl with big brown eyes, now finally settled after the family's odyssey from Russia, with stops in Austria and Italy, has come to understand one word in four different languages: "cute."

Her mother is an engineer also, specializing in heating, XTC ventilation and air conditioning systems and in gas utilities. She helped draw up cost and materials estimates on design contracts for her clients.

She'd like to do the same work in America, naturally, but she's not too hopeful. "It's impossible -- different prices, different materials," she says. Besides, "Here, it's only men" who do contract and bid estimates.

Ms. Tyktina's first job was decorating displays for shopping malls during the holiday season, a specialty of the Baltimore-based Becker Group. That lasted three months, and led to two months at home, waiting for another opportunity.

Eventually Ms. Tyktina found part-time work taking inventory of companies' stock for a Baltimore firm called Accurate Inventory. It was steady work, but it often called for graveyard shifts and sometimes took her as far away as Northern Virginia.

Three weeks ago Ms. Tyktina struck gold: a full-time job for a company called Medical Billing Systems, one that promises on-the-job training, she says.

She is still hopeful for her husband. "America needs good engineers," she contends. "But this area is not very industrial. If we go to Chicago or Detroit I think Semyon could get a job."

Despite the challenges they face, the couple insist they made the right decision. "I think in each day and each year," Mr. Plotkin says, "we will be more happy we came to America."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.