‘Brain Waste’ – Underutilizing Immigrant Talent


More than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed in the U.S. (Photo: Dave Herholz/flickr)

Tito Afolalu has an impressive resume, with over a decade’s worth of experience as an international public health professional, a Master’s degree in public health and a Bachelor of Science degree in physiology.  Afolalu, who is from Nigeria, has worked for African nongovernmental organizations that partner with the United States Agency for International Development and the Carter Center on HIV/AIDS and malaria initiatives.  Despite all that experience she currently works as a rug specialist at Macy’s in Herald Square.

Like many other educated immigrants, Afolalu faces obstacles which keep her from finding employment that matches her educational and professional background: she holds foreign degrees, lacks U.S. work experience, and has no professional and social networks in New York. In addition to these challenges, many immigrants often struggle with limited English proficiency and periods of unauthorized residence in the country.

More than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed. One in five highly skilled immigrants are working in unskilled jobs and another 22 percent are in semi-skilled jobs, earning a living as carpenters, electricians, massage therapists and the like, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst at MPI said that the majority of underemployed immigrants are from Latin America and Africa.

The Great Recession limited her chances, Afolalu suspects. She joined her husband in December 2007, just as the economy began to spiral downward. Although she has found part-time and volunteer work with New York-based international nonprofits that have capitalized on her background and skills, these positions have not panned out into full-time jobs. “It would have been different if the economy were better and if I had a degree from here,” she said.

Of course, immigrant or not, a college degree from a U.S. institution does not guarantee work that suits a person’s preference and credentials. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that close to eight percent of Americans with a partial college or associate’s degree are unemployed. Though it’s a much better unemployment rate than for those without higher education, four percent of individuals with a college degree or higher are still out of work.

Feet in Two Worlds asked Batalova why policymakers and the general public should consider the plight of highly skilled immigrants when a considerable number of the native-born are struggling with unemployment. “It is to the country’s benefit to utilize human capital the country already has, whether it is home-grown or from outside,” she said. She pointed out that there are “no structures to support the economic integration of college-educated immigrants” who can readily contribute to and help rebuild the U.S. economy.

Take Patrick Hughes, a Nigerian immigrant who recently completed a Bachelor of Art’s degree in economics and political science. He currently works at a car rental outlet in Washington, D.C., cleaning and renting out vehicles for a few dollars above minimum wage.

Hughes is grateful that he has a job at all. But he contended that, “taking into consideration the number of years of experience I have, how beneficial it would be for most companies to have people like me to help with cultural situations and operate in certain areas where international experiences are required.” Prior to coming to the United States, Hughes had helped run his family’s business in Italy. He had also been a leader for a United Nations international student organization and had led delegations to conferences in the Hague and Taipei.

The prohibitive cost employers face when sponsoring foreign nationals is often an obstacle for immigrants like Hughes seeking work in the U.S. after obtaining a college degree here. “Why hire a foreign grad when Jane Doe, an American citizen, has the same skills?” said Denitsa Koleva, a Bulgarian immigrant who is seeking an employer sponsored visa. Hughes has personally experienced this disadvantage. He has filled out countless job applications and has even gotten as far as a second interview with a leading multinational corporation only to be taken out of consideration. “When you fill out an online application, they ask outright if you will require sponsorship at some point.” He said the company dropped him after he admitted that he would indeed need help with an employment visa. He added that some online applications explicitly say that only U.S. citizens and permanent residents need apply. If Hughes doesn’t find an employer who is willing to sponsor him by this summer when his visa expires, he will be forced to leave the U.S.

Afolalu’s situation is more secure. She has gained permanent residency through her husband who works for a university in New York.  She remains optimistic and believes that she will eventually find work that suits her educational and professional background. “I’m not bitter about all this,” she said, “I’ll keep pressing until I get a job.” In the meantime, she has enlisted the help of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that tries to bring highly qualified immigrants and U.S. employers together. She also attends networking events and regularly scours networking and job websites.  In the meantime, she says she enjoying her colleagues and the customers at Macy’s.

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AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.