You’ve heard of “brain drain,” the phenomenon of talented workers leaving their home countries for better jobs elsewhere. How about “brain waste”? That’s what’s happening in the United States: Skilled, educated immigrants, having arrived in this country ready to work, can’t find good jobs.
About 1.8 million of these “new Americans” are unemployed, underemployed in semi-skilled jobs or working as unskilled labor making poverty-level wages. On a purely economic level, that’s bad for both immigrants and the country: The U.S. is forfeiting  billions of dollars in economic growth potential. Also, when immigrants with advanced degrees are properly employed, it boosts employment for their native U.S. counterparts too, according to a report by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and The Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonprofit group co-founded by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.
The employment of work-authorized, skilled immigrants is a potential boon for society in many other ways — but it’s an issue that often gets overlooked. So NationSwell convened an expert panel — including a policy analyst, an immigration integration reform advocate, a New York City economic development executive and an immigrant-services provider — to answer the question: Why should U.S. citizens care about immigrants’ employment, and what is being done — or should be done — about it?
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Madeleine Sumption

Senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a research group in Washington, D.C.

NationSwell: Why should Americans care about immigrants’ employment?
Madeleine Sumption: The United States is the world’s most attractive destination for people with skills. But it also wastes these skills on an industrial scale. The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that 1.3 million college-educated immigrants are either unemployed or working in low-skilled jobs.
Skilled professionals working in low-skilled jobs forgo tens of thousands of dollars in income. For example, the average civil engineer earns almost $80,000 per year, the average lawyer $114,000, and the average physician $172,000. By contrast, low-skilled health aides earn just $21,000 and dishwashers about $18,000.
For U.S. employers, the failure to use immigrants’ skills to their full potential reduces the pool from which they can recruit, reducing productivity. U.S. consumers cannot benefit from the services these skilled workers might have provided — such as doctors’ visits or legal assistance. And taxpayers lose out as lower-earning immigrants pay fewer taxes and may even require welfare support.
NS: What should we do to fix the problem?
MS: Tackling brain waste is difficult. It requires persistence and political commitment, and the problem cannot be solved overnight. But policy options do exist.
Many foreign-trained immigrants have gaps in their skills and need support to improve their language skills, gain local work experience that helps employers understand their abilities, and navigate complicated licensing systems in regulated occupations like medicine or accounting.
Funding for pilot projects could help build the pool of promising models to reduce the costs of additional training and make it compatible with working immigrants’ busy timetables. Partnerships between community colleges, public employment services and employers can help to provide this assistance at greater scale. And finally, regulators responsible for licensing workers in professional occupations could do more to simplify the application process and assess skills more quickly, so that people trained abroad do not have to repeat years of education and training to demonstrate their skills.

Paul Feltman

Chair of the steering committee of IMPRINT, a coalition of organizations raising awareness about the talents and contributions of immigrant professionals

NS: Why should Americans care about immigrants’ employment?
Paul Feltman: The promise of America is that we’re the land of opportunity. For immigrant professionals, that opportunity should include being able to work in the field for which they have already been educated. I’m talking about meeting the same high standards for professional licensing as American-born applicants. No special treatment.
If an immigrant engineer is driving a taxicab, and it’s not what he wants to do, that’s a loss for him but also for our entire economy. Research indicates that moving a talented person from a low-wage job into a professional-level position doesn’t just help that one person provide for her family. It helps the employer who needs her skills, the community where she pays taxes, and the region in which she lives.
The other reason Americans should care is that many skilled immigrants are Americans themselves. They have become naturalized U.S. citizens and are making a permanent home here, raising their children and becoming part of the American fabric. Their success is our success.
NS: What should we do to fix the problem?
PF: For the United States to benefit from skilled immigrants, we need to make sure three things are happening:
1. Information. It can be really hard to find information explaining how an immigrant accountant or nurse gets licensed to practice in this country. But individual immigrants, nonprofit agencies and employers really need to know what the licensing pathways are. They need to know the various options for how internationally educated applicants can return to their professions, and how to overcome common barriers.
2. Connections. People have to be able to find this information, and employers and qualified jobseekers have to be able to find each other in the labor market.
3. Action. It’s not enough to have the information or the connection. You have to be able to act on it. Often, that means making sure that policymakers understand the issue so they can advocate for clearer, easier-to-understand pathways.
Our organization, IMPRINT, works on each of these three areas. Our focus is people who are already residents of the U.S. Our goal is to make sure that if, say, a Russian engineer wants to practice here, they can get the information they need and the connections to make that information useful. Above all, we want people to be equipped to take action. The U.S. prides itself on being a place where anything is possible. We work to make that promise real.
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Nikki Cicerani

President and CEO of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit organization that provides job-search training and connects partner companies with skilled, work-authorized immigrants

NS: Why should Americans care about immigrants’ employment?
Nikki Cicerani: We should care because these foreign-educated immigrants represent an available, highly motivated talent source. While companies consistently tell us they look everywhere for their talent, this is a pool they may be missing. Furthermore, employers that give skilled immigrants their first break in the U.S. tend to be rewarded with strong employee loyalty.
In jobs where they can put their skills and experience to work, immigrants earn more and spend more. They reduce their use of government benefits and instead provide tax revenue that can be staggeringly large. Only about a quarter of the people who come to our program are working. If we get 10 percent of the 1.8 million currently unemployed or underemployed skilled immigrants into jobs where they are earning an average annual salary of $35,000, we’re generating about $6.3 billion of taxable income in a single year.
There are also important intangibles: When an immigrant doesn’t have to work the night shift to support a family, then he or she is joining the PTA and becoming involved in his or her community. These secondary impacts improve the quality of life in our cities and neighborhoods.
You have to have smart integration policies commensurate with immigration policies in order to maximize the skills and experience that immigrants are bringing. That is our message.
NS: What are you doing to fix the problem?
NC: Upwardly Global is a direct services provider for immigrant economic integration. We aim to provide culturally specific training to make our job seekers the best candidates for the job. Once job seekers — who may have recently been doing janitorial work or driving a cab — obtain professional positions, we see very high retention rates a year later. Around 90 percent are still in those jobs a year later, or another in their professional field that pays at least as much.
We are also working towards increased awareness and advocacy. Much of the current discussion around immigration reform centers on the flow of workers into the country, but there’s very little policy that addresses how to integrate these individuals into American life once they’re here. There is an integration chapter in an immigration reform bill, but it is still largely weighted toward civic integration; we’re trying to be a voice for the importance of economic integration.
We don’t advocate changing professional standards, but rather increasing the quality and clarity of information and removing unnecessary burdens for those who are foreign-trained to become relicensed and to re-enter their fields — as well as creating support systems to smooth the transition.

Eric J. Gertler,

Executive vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit that promotes economic development

NS: Why should New Yorkers care about immigrants’ employment?
Eric J. Gertler: We estimate there more than 50,000 highly skilled immigrants who are either un- or underemployed who we believe could access better jobs and contribute to the key sectors of our local economy. There is a huge need for better integration, especially in the growth areas such as health care, accounting and STEM-related work.
Very simply, it’s very important to ensure that we’re creating economic opportunity for all New Yorkers because that helps to create a greater New York for everyone. Also, from a demand side, employers are looking for skilled individuals to help them grow their companies.
Obviously this is an issue of concern to many urban areas where there has been substantial immigration. The number of foreign-born New Yorkers is at an all-time high — more than 3 million — more than 37 percent of our total, which itself is close to the peak percentage reached in 1910, when 40 percent of the city’s population was born elsewhere. [By contrast, there are 40 million foreign-born in the U.S. but this is just 7 percent of the total U.S. population, down from a peak in 1940.] In the absence of leadership at a federal level — cities need to act.
NS: What are you doing to fix the problem?
EG: In 2012 we started a pilot project called Immigrant Bridge to better integrate these skilled immigrants, which we think is the first of its kind in the country to address workforce and financial barriers to gaining employment. There are two components. The first is workforce development, where we offer soft skills training, English as a second language lessons, interview practice opportunities or job search assistance. Through three social services organizations we have engaged more than 500 [immigrants] so far, and 90 have already found jobs in their area of professional training.
The second part is a subsidized loan program [offered through Amalgamated Bank], which can help qualified job seekers with expenses that often hold them back from pursuing jobs at higher wages, such as child care, rent, more training or to get licensed. Our focus is always on the job.
EDC has invested $1.5 million for the entire program. We are tracking the data, but anecdotally we know that our program is important and that individuals are using our program successfully. We’re pleased with the results to date, but given the small sample size, we still need to gather more data to figure out the best way to expand its impact. A lot of these programs are really new; we are testing new concepts. We are really trying to be very careful to learn and measure.
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