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.

The Statue of Liberty is seen on October 13, 2013 in New York City.
National Journal
Paul Feltman
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Paul Feltman
Oct. 22, 2013, 2 a.m.

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 re­spond­ents — 77 per­cent — named 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 per­cep­tions — pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive — can 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 this — and 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 foot­print — and 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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