Opinion

It’s Time to Employ Skilled Immigrants Already Here

America has 1.8 million unemployed or underemployed immigrants ready to put their skills and education to work. Networking and other coaching can help the U.S. retain the best and the brightest.

Nikki Cicerani, president and CEO of Upwardly Global, which offers services for employers and new Americans.
National Journal
Nikki Ciceran
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Nikki Ciceran
Feb. 13, 2014, midnight

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s re­cent pro­pos­al to seek 50,000 spe­cial visas to at­tract highly­ skilled im­mig­rants to De­troit sends a strong pub­lic mes­sage about the value of for­eign-born pro­fes­sion­als as an en­gine of eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment. But em­ploy­ers and poli­cy­makers in De­troit — and in St. Louis, Clev­e­land, Ok­lahoma City, and oth­er places that struggle with on­go­ing tal­ent short­ages — don’t have to wait for Con­gress to grant new visas be­fore they start tap­ping in­to the glob­al tal­ent pool.

That’s be­cause the U.S. is already home to 1.8 mil­lion for­eign-edu­cated im­mig­rants who are un­em­ployed or un­der­em­ployed, ac­cord­ing to the non­par­tis­an Mi­gra­tion Policy In­sti­tute. The fa­mil­i­ar nar­rat­ive of an im­mig­rant en­gin­eer driv­ing a cab or an ac­count­ant work­ing as a wait­ress is a real­ity for hun­dreds of thou­sands of new Amer­ic­ans who come to the U.S. as a res­ult of fam­ily re­uni­fic­a­tion, green-card lot­tery, or as refugees and asylum-seekers. This group of tal­en­ted, edu­cated in­di­vidu­als is of­ten over­looked in im­mig­ra­tion de­bates that fo­cus more on top­ics such as man­aging the fu­ture flow of im­mig­rants, but they are prime can­did­ates for meet­ing today’s em­ploy­er needs.

As the pres­id­ent and CEO of the na­tion­al non­profit Up­wardly Glob­al, which works to in­teg­rate this pop­u­la­tion in­to the U.S. work­force, I am acutely fa­mil­i­ar with the cul­tur­al and prac­tic­al obstacles that keep skilled im­mig­rants from mov­ing out of low-wage sur­viv­al jobs.

Many of the job seekers we work with ar­rive with the ex­per­i­ence and train­ing em­ploy­ers are look­ing for. What they lack is a pro­fes­sion­al net­work and the tools to nav­ig­ate a U.S. job search — straight­for­ward but sur­pris­ingly cul­tur­ally spe­cif­ic skills such as how to write a U.S.-style cov­er let­ter and re­sume, how to identi­fy and net­work with pro­spect­ive em­ploy­ers, and how to suc­cess­fully mar­ket their edu­ca­tion and skills to Amer­ic­an com­pan­ies. Coun­tries in­clud­ing Canada, Aus­tralia, Por­tugal, and the Neth­er­lands have pi­loted pro­grams aimed at work­force in­teg­ra­tion and cre­at­ing cent­ral­ized re­sources for li­cens­ing and em­ploy­ment re­quire­ments. The United States will have to take a cue from these coun­tries and de­vel­op tar­geted in­ter­ven­tions to keep im­mig­rant tal­ent from fall­ing through the cracks if we want to con­tin­ue at­tract­ing and re­tain­ing the best and the bright­est.

Poli­cy­makers and em­ploy­ers in the U.S. who pro­act­ively reach out to the skilled im­mig­rant pop­u­la­tion already in the coun­try will have im­me­di­ate ac­cess to tal­ent in high-de­mand fields such as IT, en­gin­eer­ing, and fin­ance. Al­most as im­port­antly, they will also see their com­munit­ies strengthened by an in­crease in fed­er­al tax rev­en­ue and in­creased con­sumer spend­ing by newly em­ployed work­ers, as well as a likely in­crease in spillover jobs gen­er­ated by their em­ploy­ment.

We have a long tra­di­tion in the United States of people mov­ing for great­er op­por­tun­ity. Hus­band and wife phys­i­cians Ahmed Ham­di and Ru­aa Al-Ward came to Ann Ar­bor, Mich., last year as refugees from Ir­aq, both de­term­ined to fin­ish their med­ic­al train­ing in the U.S. They com­pleted the United States Med­ic­al Li­cens­ing Ex­am­in­a­tion and worked with Up­wardly Glob­al staff to pol­ish their re­sumes and con­nect with U.S. doc­tors who helped them pre­pare for res­id­ency in­ter­views.

After more than 100 ap­plic­a­tions and nearly 20 in­ter­views between the two of them, both were re­cently ac­cep­ted to an in­tern­al medi­cine res­id­ency pro­gram in Flint, Mich. They are also ex­pect­ing their first child and are look­ing for­ward to put­ting down roots in their new com­munity. Drs. Ham­di and Al-Ward rep­res­ent a large con­tin­gent of am­bi­tious new Amer­ic­ans who are open to re­lo­cat­ing and to re­build­ing their lives in com­munit­ies that act­ively wel­come skilled im­mig­rants and their fam­il­ies.

Places like De­troit can cap­it­al­ize on this ex­ist­ing tal­ent without hav­ing to wait on shifts in labyrinth­ine fed­er­al policy. Cit­ies can em­ploy pur­pose­ful, evid­ence-based strategies such as work­ing with com­munity col­leges to identi­fy for­eign-trained pro­fes­sion­als who may need more spe­cif­ic ca­reer ad­vising than the schools can provide, and de­vel­op­ing struc­tured in­tern­ships or job-match­ing sys­tems to con­nect em­ploy­ers with qual­i­fied can­did­ates. Our part­ner Im­print Pro­ject of­fers in­form­a­tion on policy and strategies.

Lead­ers have already spoken up for im­mig­ra­tion re­form. We hope they will also look closer to home for the tal­ent that is already here.

The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion. Email us.

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