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The Next America | Perspectives

When Skilled Immigrants Have Other Options

No longer is the U.S. the routine top choice for trained professionals wanting to settle in a new land.

(Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

October 22, 2013

Would it surprise you to know that most potential immigrants don't want to come to America? A worldwide poll conducted by Gallup shows that while more than 600 million individuals want to emigrate, the United States is not where most of them want to go.

In fact, more than three-quarters of respondents77 percentnamed a country outside the U.S. as their top-choice destination. Often they chose to go somewhere close, but when the sky's the limit, their answers reflect a stark new reality: The U.S. is no longer the default option for ambitious young immigrants, including those trained as engineers, doctors, and other professionals. Paul Feltman is director of Global Talent Bridge initiative, a nonprofit that works to integrate and credential skilled workers from other nations who want to pursue their career in the U.S. (Courtesy Imprint Project)

Instead, we're competing for their attention and talent. Countries like Canada, Australia, and even Germany are proactively encouraging skilled workers to choose their nations for a new home. These countries often sweeten the pot by offering services to help new arrivals find jobs and become integrated.

 

Growing Competition for Skilled Migrants

American business and political leaders are often surprised to discover that potential migrants can take a quick quiz at a Canadian government website and find out in a few minutes if they may qualify for an immigration visa. For example, they're amazed to learn that the Australian government came to Houston last spring to recruit engineers eligible to work there.

But as the director of the nonprofit Global Talent Bridge initiative, I'm no longer surprised. More than 60,000 people a year come to GTB and its parent organization, World Education Services, to obtain a third-party evaluation of their international educational credentials.

People like Paul, a master's-level electrical engineer from Romania, who needed a way to demonstrate his education to American employers in the advanced manufacturing field. Or Maryam, a psychologist from Ethiopia who needed to verify her credentials for a state licensing board so she could pursue work as a school psychologist.

Providing they pass our evaluation process, these individuals embark on the new migration journey. Typically, they are seeking professional employment or additional higher-education opportunities or verification. In both cases, the world of choices open to them is very different from just 20 or 30 years ago.

Today's migrants have access to a robust pipeline of news and information about potential destinations, long before they arrive. The widespread use of social media means that a newcomer's perceptionspositive or negativecan ricochet back to his home country in minutes.

Global Changes, Local Implications

So what does this mean for the United States? First, we need to abandon the assumption that international talent will simply continue to arrive. Today's immigrants have options, and they're not afraid to exercise them.

Second, we need to think through how immigrant talent fits into an American future. Are we interested in more entrepreneurs? How about more doctors? Already, nearly 1 in 4 physicians in the U.S. are foreign-born. Given our aging population and the growing number of Americans covered under the Affordable Care Act, demand for health professionals is continuing to increase. Indeed, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. will need 60,000 additional physicians by 2015. Having a clear vision for the roles we as a society want immigrants to play will help us to develop smart strategies for attracting them.

Third, it's time to update our approach to immigrant integration. While a laissez-faire approach may have been appropriate a few decades ago, these days we need purposeful strategies to ensure that newcomers are rapidly and successfully incorporated into our economy.

The Next American Chapter

Fortunately, there are solutions on the horizon. IMPRINT (for Immiigrant Professional Integration) is a national coalition of nonprofit groups working on skilled immigrant issues. It has identified an array of practical strategies to help the U.S. retain its leadership position in attracting and capitalizing on international talent.

Some are already being implemented by forward-thinking cities and states. Here are just a few:

  • Illuminating pathways to U.S. licensure. Understanding the American system of professional licensing can be overwhelming for immigrant accountants, engineers, and others. Making licensing requirements transparent and educating individuals about suitable alternative careers are two big steps toward ensuring that talented workers don't waste time and money finding their way back to professional careers. The Global Michigan project knows thisand that's why it has just released 10 licensing guides for key professions in Michigan.
  • Building the capacity of state Workforce Investment Boards and one-stop career centers. The workforce development system is a key intermediary between employers and skilled workers. Making sure that these providers are equipped to identify and serve skilled immigrants is vital in ensuring that they can satisfy employers' requests for multilingual candidates with strong technical skills. In Pennsylvania and Missouri, local Workforce Investment Boards contract with nonprofit agencies to provide specialized employment services for legally work-authorized immigrant job-seekers.
  • Increasing the provision of advanced, contextualized English programs. These brief, targeted interventions help skilled immigrants rapidly improve their technical and professional English skills, enabling them to become effective contributors in their chosen fields. One such program is the REVEST program at Miami-Dade College, which provides contextualized vocational English to refugee students, many of whom had professional backgrounds in their home countries.
  • Connecting immigrant entrepreneurs to small-business resources. From the federal Small Business Administration to state and local economic development offices, the U.S. offers a host of resources. Ensuring that immigrant business owners are plugged in to this infrastructure can help increase our country's global business footprintand ensure that the jobs newcomers are creating are based here in the U.S. New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia are among the municipalities that have implemented specific efforts to support immigrant entrepreneurship.

My organization, along with colleagues in the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services, works on identifying both opportunities and challenges in integrating skilled immigrants into our economy. It's gratifying to see this issue gaining traction, but there is still much to be done.

The U.S. spent the past century enjoying its status as the world's favorite destination. If we wish to retain that title, we need to ensure that our communities are poised to incorporate today's talented new arrivals.

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