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New Report on 'Brain Waste': 1 in 5 College-Educated Immigrants in U.S. Labor Market Stuck in Unskilled Jobs or Unemployed

Press Release
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Report on 'Brain Waste': 1 in 5 College-Educated Immigrants in U.S. Labor Market Stuck in Unskilled Jobs or Unemployed

WASHINGTON — More than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants living in the United States are unemployed or working as taxi drivers, dishwashers, security guards or in other unskilled jobs because they are unable to make full use of their academic and professional credentials, according to a new report issued today by the Migration Policy Institute.

The report, Uneven Progress: The Employment Pathways of Skilled Immigrants in the United States, for the first time quantifies the scope of the "brain waste" problem that affects 22 percent of the 6.1 million immigrants with a bachelor’s degree or higher who are in the U.S. labor market. The report analyzes and offers possible solutions for the credentialing and language-barrier hurdles that deprive the U.S. economy of a rich source of human capital at a time of increasing competition globally for skilled talent.

“While policymakers in Europe, Canada and elsewhere are focusing intently on attracting highly skilled immigrants, it is all the more necessary for the United States to fully leverage the talents of college-educated immigrants already living here – more than half of whom came with academic degrees earned abroad,” said Michael Fix, MPI’s senior vice president and co-author of the report. “It’s vital for the U.S. economy and its productivity in an ever-more globalized world, as well as for the immigrants themselves.”

Said report co-author Jeanne Batalova, an MPI policy analyst: “During a period of rising unemployment and economic difficulties, it’s important to think ahead and make clear that allowing college-educated immigrants already in the United States to achieve greater career potential can increase U.S. productivity and competitiveness. Numerous studies have shown that highly skilled immigrants contribute to the economy through innovation and entrepreneurship, and pay more in taxes than they take out in services. Maximizing the use of their human capital can be an engine for job creation.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Many highly skilled immigrants experience a sharp drop in occupational status upon first coming to the United States. How quickly they recover their status depends on a number of factors, including English skills, region of origin, place of education and length of time in this country.
  • Overall, college-educated immigrants from Africa and Latin America have less success in finding skilled jobs in the United States than do immigrants from Asia and Europe.
  • Highly skilled immigrants with U.S. college degrees or U.S. work experience prior to permanent settlement fared far better than their peers with foreign-obtained degrees or no U.S. work experience.
  • English language proficiency is critical to obtaining jobs commensurate with immigrants’ competencies.

The report offers a number of policy suggestions to improve the professional outcomes for the highly skilled, including integrated language and workforce training; and the creation of a standing commission on labor markets that would recommend adjustments in visa levels and put the immigration system in sync with the economy.

In addition to offering a national snapshot, the report’s authors examined skill underutilization on the state level by analyzing U.S. Census data for California, Illinois, Maryland and New York.

The report is available online here.

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The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.