Pure anxiety took 10 pounds off Natasha Goberman during her first month of work at a Baltimore lingerie store 11 years ago.
"I was so nervous, I didn't speak the language, I didn't understand half of what was told me about what to do," recalls Ms. Goberman, who emigrated from Leningrad in 1979 and now owns her own shop, Giselle Fitted Lingerie, in Mount Washington. "When customers came up to me, I didn't know how to help them."
Starting a new job is hard enough when you're a native-born American. But the difficulties multiply when you're a foreigner who must adjust to major differences in language and culture.
That's a challenge faced daily by the estimated 16,000 immigrants and refugees who arrive in Maryland each year from countries such as Vietnam, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union. Many of these foreigners are accustomed to work environments far different from what they find here.
Immigrants who hail from socialist countries, for example, may be disheartened to learn about the heavy competition for employment here.
"Sometimes it's hard for people to realize that even though you're an honest, willing, hard-working person, a job isn't automatic," said Pat Hatch, executive director of the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network, a non-profit organization in Columbia that helps resettle Howard County immigrants and refugees.
Easing your way into the work force may take time and effort, but it's not impossible. Here are some pointers, courtesy of local job placement counselors:
* Learn as much English as you can before you apply for a job. "The better English skills you have, the better your chances are of securing and moving up in a job," said Harryet Wallace, a FIRN job placement counselor.
Every semester, the New Community College of Baltimore offers English classes for foreign-born residents. These classes are free for refugees. For information, call 396-1904.
If you need to start working right away and can't take an intensive English course, sign up for evening classes. You'll also find that you pick up a lot of English on the job.
* Consider enrolling in other types of courses, particularly accreditation programs, if you can afford them. When Cong Nguyen and Tam Ha of Vietnam first came to Columbia from a refugee camp in the Philippines in 1987, they washed dishes in a French restaurant to support themselves and their daughter.
After obtaining a certificate from RETS Technical Center in Baltimore, Mr. Nguyen landed a job repairing air conditioning and ventilation systems for the Columbia Inn two years ago. Ms. Ha, who enrolled in a hair styling school, now works in a barbershop. The couple's 8-year-old daughter, My Nguyen, plans to become a doctor. "If she tries, she'll make it," Mr. Nguyen said.
According to Ms. Hatch, reaccreditation is often necessary for professionals who are looking for work in their fields.
* Network with friends or relatives to find employment, said Sheri Conklin, a case manager for refugee services at Associated Catholic Charities. Ask everyone you meet if they know of any job openings.
* Don't pass over a low-level job for fear of being stuck in it forever. Unlike some countries where people tend to stay in one position for most of their lives, workers in the United States frequently move up within their organizations or change jobs. Chances are that once you get your foot in a company's door, you'll find opportunities for mobility. Besides, most job placement counselors agree that any kind of job experience you get is useful, because it teaches you about the American world of work.
* When making up a resume, limit it to experiences that are pertinent to the job you're looking for. Type the resume and have someone check it for mistakes.
* Before calling an employer, practice your telephone approach with a friend or a relative. You should be able to introduce yourself, to inquire about the position, and to set up an interview with some degree of fluency.
* Dress appropriately for the interview, wearing neat, attractive clothes.
* Make sure you obtain detailed, accurate directions to the job interview. Arriving there a few minutes early will lend you an air of promptness and efficiency, and will also give you time to gather your thoughts before the interview begins.
* Look the interviewer in the eye when you speak to him. In some countries, making eye contact is considered impolite or disrespectful, but in the United States, it's a sign of honesty and forthrightness. Also, be assertive and positive about your qualifications. "Sometimes it's hard for people to speak well about themselves, because of cultural modesty, but it's necessary here," said Ms. Hatch.