Untapped Talents of Educated Immigrants
Thursday, October 23, 2008
One in five college-educated immigrants in the United States is unemployed or working in an unskilled job such as a dishwasher, fast-food restaurant cashier or security guard, depriving the U.S. economy of the full potential of more than 1.3 million foreign-born workers, according to a study released yesterday.
Immigrants in the Washington area are among the most educated in the country, and the plight of those who are underemployed is familiar to anyone who has gotten a ride from D.C. cabdriver with an engineering degree from Ethiopia or had a car parked by a garage attendant who used to practice law in El Salvador. However, the report by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute is the first to quantify the extent of the problem.
Highly educated Latin American and African immigrants fare far worse in the job market than Europeans or Asians, the authors said. Almost half of recently arrived college-educated Latin Americans hold unskilled jobs, as do more than one-third of those who have been in the country for more than 10 years. The problem persists even when only immigrants who are in the country legally are considered.
Construction worker Grego Pineda, who fled politically motivated death threats in his native El Salvador seven years ago, said his difficulty learning to speak polished English is the only obstacle to resuming his former career in law and banking. Pineda, 45, who has won international literary prizes for his essays in Spanish, was once on the board of a public bank and was the owner of a flourishing law practice, a house in one of the San Salvador's most exclusive neighborhoods and a vacation place by the beach.
So it came as a shock when the only job he could find in the Washington area was as a laborer with La Plata-based Facchina Construction Co. "The first year was incredibly hard," Pineda said in Spanish. "You work in everything from the snow to the extreme heat, and there were two or three times that I honestly found myself tearing up at the thought that I was doing this hard labor that had nothing to do with my studies."
To keep up his spirits, Pineda said would try to recite scraps of poetry and operas while he worked. "It was a way to stimulate my mind while my body was doing this rote work."
Pineda is grateful to managers at Facchina for recognizing his potential and paying for him to take the technical classes necessary to rise through the ranks. Today, he is a regional safety manager and speaks proudly of helping prevent accidents.
Still, he said yesterday, shouting above the clang of metal at a construction site in Rosslyn: "I'm not satisfied. I love the law, and my heart will be constricted until I can practice again."
Although African immigrants are more likely to hold high-skilled jobs than Latin Americans, they have the highest unemployment rates of all foreign-born groups. By contrast, employment patterns of well-educated Europeans are virtually indistinguishable from their U.S.-born counterparts, regardless of how long they have lived in the United States. Asian immigrants educated abroad do only slightly worse.
Michael Fix, a co-author of the study, said discrimination against Latinos and Africans might affect how they do in the job market, compared with Europeans and Asians. But he said much of the gap can be explained by the language skills and immigration circumstances common to people from each region.
For instance, highly skilled immigrants who speak only limited English are twice as likely to work in an unskilled job as those who are proficient in English. And 44 percent of Latin Americans educated at foreign colleges speak English poorly or not at all, compared with 32 percent of Europeans and 23 percent of Asians.
Africans have the best language skills of any group. Only 15 percent speak English poorly or not at all. But it appears that this advantage is swamped by a disadvantage: Only 10 percent of the Africans are sponsored for entry by employers. By comparison, 42 percent are sponsored by family members, and almost a third are admitted through a government lottery program. Immigrants entering on such visas often lack the professional networks needed to find a job in their field.
This is also a challenge for college-educated Latin Americans, who are the least likely to be sponsored by employers -- with only 6 percent receiving such visas, compared with 16 percent of Europeans and 35 percent of Asians.
High school teacher Kalé Koene, a native of Togo, said that if he had known someone in the education field, he would probably have acquired certification and resumed teaching within a year of seeking political asylum in the United States in 2004.
"It's not just that I didn't know the process [of becoming certified]. I didn't even know to find the information," he said.
So Koene, who started with the District school system as a French teacher in August, spent his first four years in the United States working at a wide variety of jobs, including busboy and cultural consultant to the U.S. Marines.
Cultural barriers also hamper newcomers, said Jane Leu, executive director of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit organization that helps highly educated immigrants find work in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Foreign-born job seekers often have difficulty engaging in the self-promotion and personal revelation required in many American job interviews, said Leu, whose group links applicants with mentors in their fields and offers interview training and help with résumé preparation.
"A typical interview question is, 'Tell me about a time you made a mistake and how you learned from it,' "she said. "That's not a question asked in other countries. You don't talk about mistakes."
Refugees often face the highest hurdles because they lack even the cushion of financial support from family. Vu Dang, director of the International Rescue Committee's Washington area refugee resettlement office, said this obstacle has proved particularly vexing to Iraqi refugees arriving in recent months. They receive a three-month stipend from the U.S. government, at best.
The resettlement office has "to acclimatize them to the reality that whatever they were in their home country is irrelevant," Dang said. "They need to find a job right away just to pay their rent, and those kind of jobs are going to be jobs in hotels and restaurants that pay a little bit over minimum wage."
Fix and co-author Jeanne Batalova suggest that federal and state officials could do more to ease the way for highly educated immigrants by providing more assistance with English classes, offering loans to offset the cost of preparing for professional certification exams, and working to harmonize assessment systems to make it easier, when appropriate, for immigrants to make use of foreign academic and professional credentials.
As an example, the authors cited a Maryland plan to relieve the state's chronic shortage of nurses by helping about 150 immigrants trained as nurses in their home countries obtain certification to work in the state.
Maryland's labor secretary, Thomas E. Perez, said the program was a no-brainer. "The cost is roughly $5,000 per person," he said. "When you compare that to the cost of training a nurse from scratch, that's about the most cost-effective investment I can think of."