Immigrants and refugees: Untapped data science potential

February 8, 2022

This article is cross-posted with 
Immigrants and refugees: Untapped data science potential
February 8, 2022  |   Accenture Strategy & Consulting
Wendy Chan, Fernando Constantino, Kristina Shahoian, Alexandre de Siqueira, Marsha Fenner, Ciera Martinez, Jennie Murray, Fahad Alnimah


In brief

  • The explosion in the use of AI and data has led to a gold rush for related talent.
  • But such in-demand talent remains scarce, fueling the need for companies to get creative in where they look for data science skills.
  • One of the biggest, and most promising, of these sources are the immigrant and refugee communities, which recently had an influx of Afghan refugees.
  • A collaboration among Accenture, Upwardly Global, and the Berkeley Institute for Data Science shows how to tap into this rich pipeline of talent.

Immigrants and refugees: A robust source of data science skills

Companies everywhere are looking to dramatically improve their operations by boosting their use of artificial intelligence (AI) and data. The problem is, finding the people with the skills to deploy and use these powerful tools is difficult—there just aren’t that many individuals out there with them. Or are there?

A collaboration among Accenture, Upwardly Global, and the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS) at the University of California shows that these in-demand skills can be found in what many companies might consider unlikely places—including the U.S. immigrant and refugee communities. These groups have hidden skills that, with some targeted training, could serve as a strong foundation for building new data science, engineering, analytics, and AI skills. All we need is an open mind and a little creative thinking.

Data science skills: No longer just an IT need

With the use of AI and data becoming increasingly critical in companies across a diverse cross-section of industries, the demand for related skills is skyrocketing. In fact, many occupations outside of the IT and data science fields now require skills in data analysis, engineering, and modeling.

The Global Emancipation Network (GEN) is just one example of how companies now use data science to solve problems and bring value to their operations. GEN partnered with Accenture, Splunk (the provider of the Data-to-Everything ™ Platform), and technology partner Graphistry in 2019 for a pro bono pilot project to develop a human trafficking content classifier powered by AI, focused on the illicit massage industry in the state of Florida. The GEN contact classifier collated public records, such as business license databases, adverse filings, and online reviews related to the target industry and territory, and used machine learning to analyze data and indicators for potential illegal activity. By doing so, it could identify businesses and individuals most likely involved in human trafficking activity and send alerts to law enforcement agencies. When the pilot tool was used in cooperation with investigators to identify potential perpetrators, more than 400 businesses scored the highest level of risk—suggesting a likelihood of being engaged in illegal trafficking activity. Knowing which were high-risk, investigators were able to discern which facilities should be monitored most closely and needed further human-led investigation. Empowered to move at the same pace as the perpetrators, investigators have been given the potential to help save more lives and bring more criminals to justice.

Many members of the immigrant and refugee communities have hidden skills that, with some targeted training, could serve as a strong foundation for building new data science, engineering, analytics, and AI skills.

There are thousands of applications at work, in our car, and in the machines and consumer devices we operate that collect and use data to improve performance. The continued growth in those applications has led to increasing numbers of highly skilled and specialized employment areas that require skills in data analytics, machine learning, decision science, data engineering, and other related areas, as well as in foundational tools such as Python, R, SQL, and TensorFlow. Recent Accenture research confirms just how strong this demand is—and how big the gap is between companies’ needs and the supply of such skills.

An Accenture analysis of labor data from Burning Glass—a jobs market analytics tool that offers labor market trends—found that between October 1, 2020, and September 30, 2021, the numbers of job openings, by occupation, requesting data scientist and data engineer skills were 8,791 and 8,162, respectively.

Overall, as measured by total job postings among major metropolitan areas of interest, the New York (59,720) and Washington, D.C., metro areas (47,447) have the strongest demand for jobs requiring data science and data engineering skills, followed by the San Francisco (42,447) and Chicago (29,4630) metros. And these are well-paying jobs, with a median annual salary of around $100,000 in these areas.

Targeted reskilling of immigrants and refugees can have a big impact on both a company’s ability to fill critical roles and new arrivals’ opportunities to restart their careers in the U.S.

From an industry standpoint, the Professional, Technical, and Scientific Services sector leads the way in demand for data science and data engineering skills, accounting for 30% of the total job openings. Finance and Insurance (21%), Information (14%), and Manufacturing (9%) also demonstrated strong demand.

An open mind and creativity: Tapping into the immigrant and refugee community

With the need for these and other skills critical to the use of AI and data growing, and their supply still scarce, employers need to get creative in their search for talent. Often, that includes looking at talent sources that don’t immediately come to mind as hotbeds of data science skills.

One of the biggest, and most promising, of these sources is the immigrant and refugee community, which recently has experienced a major influx of Afghan refugees resettling in the United States. Many members of this community have hidden skills that, with some targeted training, could serve as a strong foundation for building new data science, engineering, analytics, and AI skills. However, despite the potential, they face numerous cultural and systemic barriers that inhibit their full participation in the U.S. workforce and economy.

Immigrants and refugees are part of what we call the "hidden worker" —skilled people who struggle to find work even when companies are desperate for talent. In fact, millions of people are eager to work, if only employers could find them. Why do such workers remain hidden? Accenture, in partnership with Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work, did a study to find out. The research identified several categories of people who became hidden workers, including people who are caregivers, veterans, immigrants and refugees, those with mental health or developmental/neurodiversity challenges, those from less-advantaged populations, people who were previously incarcerated, and those without traditional qualifications. Among the biggest reasons companies have trouble identifying and considering such workers as candidates to meet their skills needs are a widening training gap, inflexibly configured automated recruiting systems, and failure to recognize the value these “hidden workers” can potentially bring to the business, hence preventing them from elevating this business case.

Companies that hire hidden workers are 44% less likely to face challenges finding workers with the necessary skills and 35% less likely to face challenges meeting diversity goals. 59,720: The number of job postings in the New York metropolitan area requiring data science and data engineering skills, between October 1, 2020, and September 30, 2021.

The benefits of tapping into this workforce are significant. According to our research, companies that hire these hidden workers are 44% less likely to face challenges finding workers with the necessary skills and 35% less likely to face challenges meeting diversity goals. Once hired, hidden workers outperform their peers across six key criteria: attitude and work ethic, productivity, quality of work, engagement, attendance, and innovation. Although rethinking best practices in hiring and rewiring human and technology processes will be a steep climb, it’s clear that hiring hidden workers is not only a social imperative, but also good for business.

Recognizing the challenge, Upwardly Global has stepped in to make a difference. It’s an internationally recognized nonprofit organization whose mission is to eliminate employment barriers for skilled, college-educated immigrants as well as refugees, and to help integrate these populations into the professional workforce.

Upwardly Global addresses barriers such as knowledge gaps, skills, and training through a combination of soft skills training, employer engagement, and labor market-driven technical skills training to prepare participants to fill the highest-demand roles in industries with the highest projected growth—including data science, machine learning, and data engineering.

Within the past year, 242 individuals completed just under 700 total data science/data engineering courses within the organization’s career skills program. Nearly half (101) of them found jobs, 18 of whom were placed in a data science or data engineering role—illustrating the both the untapped potential in this group and the selective nature of this field. Thirty-five more individuals are currently actively seeking data science-related jobs.

Of the 18 people who were placed (including one with Accenture), 14 already had some direct experience in or knowledge of the IT industry or data science. However, three did not: a former marketing and sales professional, a business analyst and scrum master, and a healthcare industry professional. These three individuals were able to build on adjacent skills (e.g., project management, sourcing and procurement, enterprise analysis, and data analysis) to develop new skills that helped them land data science-related jobs.

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A new model: Filling the data science talent pipeline

It’s clear that such intentional, targeted reskilling of immigrants and refugees can have a big impact on both a company’s ability to fill critical roles and new arrivals’ opportunities to restart their careers in the U.S. And that’s what spurred Accenture, Upwardly Global, and the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS) to collaborate on a formal, scalable program to build greater awareness among immigrants and refugees of career opportunities in data science and related roles; identify the skills these professionals have—as well as those they need—and train them to prepare for these roles; and ultimately help them find opportunities to put their new skills to work for employers that need them.

This collaboration, launched in the autumn of 2020, is a cross-sector effort: It brings together a private-sector company, a higher-education institution, and a non-government organization to find solutions to a critical problem that both employers and immigrant and refugee job-seekers have.


As a global professional services company with leading capabilities in digital, cloud and security, Accenture brings a unique perspective to the team. Accenture works with clients to help them scale AI by embedding AI-powered data, analytics and automation capabilities into business workflows.

The company initially conducted the labor market research mentioned earlier on a pro bono basis to quantify the extent of the gap between the demand for and supply of critical data sciences-related skills—which helped inform the design and strategy of the collaborative program. Accenture also provides industry-based mentors working in data analytics, intelligent automation and AI to coach the individuals who’ve completed their training with Upwardly Global and BIDS and help them through the job-seeking process. And, as an employer, Accenture is in a position to hire individuals from the program to work in the company’s Applied Intelligence practice, where data sciences skills are fundamental to Accenture’s services.

Upwardly Global

Upwardly Global’s invaluable contribution to the partnership is its connection to internationally trained immigrant and refugee professionals who are restarting their careers in the United States. These educated, skilled, talented, and experienced individuals:

  • Are fully authorized to work in the U.S.
  • Have a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Have an average of five to seven years of professional work experience
  • Are fluent in English and are bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and are globally diverse

Upwardly Global also supplies the training programs to help job-seekers who already have data sciences skills advance those skills, as well as to help those with adjacent skills build the relevant new skills to prepare them for data sciences-related roles.

Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS)

BIDS brings to the table the organization’s extensive experience working with a diverse and active data science community of domain experts from the life, social, and physical sciences, as well as methodological experts from computer science, statistics, and applied mathematics.

As part of this joint effort, BIDS is working with Upwardly Global and Accenture’s Applied Intelligence practice to produce a series of webinars to help immigrant and refugee job-seekers with college degrees from their home country learn more about data science, how to interpret and understand related job descriptions, and answer key questions including: What do various job positions in data science look like? How can job-seekers prepare for interviews for such roles? What kinds of skill sets and tools do they need to be successful in these jobs? These webinars provide vital guidance to job-seekers, as the terminology for data science jobs, the specifics of what these jobs entail, and the definitions of particular roles have been evolving significantly in the past 10 years and are often difficult to navigate.

Success stories demonstrate the power of collaboration

Working together, Accenture, Upwardly Global, and BIDS have helped numerous professionals prepare for and find work in new data sciences roles. Here are just a few examples of success.

Improving interview skills for a Java role
Idris Askarov was referred to Upwardly Global's program in May 2021. He relocated to Texas from Kazakhstan, where he worked as a Java developer for large banking institutions. As he began his job search in the U.S., he was focused on refreshing his technical skills in Java. He worked closely with Upwardly Global's program to prepare for interviews, connected with volunteers for technical interview preparation, and worked with an Upwardly Global volunteer for language coaching. All of these interactions and Idris's skill building increased his confidence. In only a few months, he began receiving more interviews, including one for a Java developer role at Accenture, where he is now employed.


Building on advanced degrees for data analyst job
Frederic Gomes came to the U.S. from Senegal with two master’s degrees and big dreams, but quickly hit hurdles in putting his education and experience to work here. “Upwardly Global helped me go from barely surviving with two jobs to thriving in a new job at Accenture,” he says. “I’m proud to work for a change-making organization that values diversity and delivers results.” Frederic, who was Upwardly Global's 50th placement with Accenture, is currently an Accenture digital business integration senior analyst.


Enhancing networking for a data scientist role
One person, referred to Upwardly Global in August 2019, had relocated to New Jersey from his home country (Turkey), where he worked as a research engineer and data scientist. After a year of searching for a data scientist role with little success, he applied to join Upwardly Global's program. He worked closely with his advisor on crafting an updated resume, conducting mock interviews, and stepping up networking online and through events and volunteer connections. He also took data science courses to develop his data science skills in machine learning, Python, and big data. Armed with an updated resume and newfound confidence in his additional skills gained through the program, he eventually landed a job as a data scientist with a large American retail chain.


Preparing for a data engineer position
Another person learned of Upwardly Global in his home country (Algeria), where he had a background in computer science. Upon joining Upwardly Global, he received guidance first on narrowing down his career plans, which ultimately took him to data science. He then learned how to prepare for behavioral interviews and network effectively, and was introduced to several employer partners, which gave him valuable knowledge and experience in the U.S. interview process. He also took additional coursework that focused on data science skills such as SQL, Python, and data visualization. These new skills enabled him to apply for a fellowship and, despite the pandemic slowing things down, land his first full-time job as a data engineer at a U.S. grocery retailer, where he currently works. 


Call to action: A creative and effective approach to employment

The more than 2 million unemployed or underemployed immigrants and refugees in the U.S. face a daunting challenge in looking for work. These include the thousands of refugees newly arrived from Afghanistan, who hold higher education and impressive experience and are ready to join the professional workforce. From finding opportunities, applying for jobs, and interviewing, to encountering cultural barriers and developing an understanding of how to promote themselves to potential employers, this community continues to struggle to find rich, rewarding jobs in their new country. At the same time, these individuals are highly skilled, with a minimum of a four-year degree and international experience, and are fully authorized to work in the U.S.—meaning, they represent a major untapped source of talent who can fill a variety of in-demand roles, especially those in the data sciences field.

Immigrants and refugees who find themselves in this situation can benefit from the Accenture, Upwardly Global, and BIDS collaboration. Working together, the three organizations can connect newcomers with pathways to professional success—providing the education, training, and mentoring they need to build critical new skills and navigate the job-seeking process to ultimately find work in a high-demand, high-impact field. A good start for job-seekers is to apply for Upwardly Global’s free program and watch the BIDS-Upwardly Global webinar series.

For employers, this collaboration could be a model for how, at a high level, to create more inclusive hiring practices and champion programs and policies that advance equity and inclusion. When it comes to data sciences skills specifically, it’s a way to think out of the box—to tap into a community and talent source that traditional recruiting approaches likely will overlook. Teaming with Upwardly Global and BIDS can help employers see the value immigrants and refugees can bring to their organization by focusing on individuals’ professional experience and transferrable adjacent skills—and appreciating their different cultural norms that can add valuable new perspectives to employers’ workforces. This approach could be particularly effective and timely in helping recent Afghan refugees find work in their new homes. Companies are also invited to participate in FutureofU, a collaboration of businesses (including Accenture) that connects candidates with employment opportunities by building new skills for roles such as in AI, data science, digital, and more—all at no cost to candidates.

As the use of AI and data only becomes more pervasive, the demand for relevant skills will continue to grow. The immigrant and refugee communities are ready to help meet that demand and contribute to companies’ ongoing efforts to use data to improve their business and the world.

Updated February 11, 2022


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