Untapped talents: For many immigrants, careers and skills get lost in translation

Editor’s note: This is the introductory story in a weekly series that will examine how individual immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life have, for various reasons, had to leave behind the skills, talents and careers they had cultivated.

By Nzar Sharif, contributor

Imagine what it takes to go to college — and then maybe graduate school — to become an engineer, lawyer or doctor. Such careers bring prestige and provide reliable income pretty much everywhere across the globe. 

Think about the pride engineers, lawyers and doctors might feel going to work every day, dressed for success — maybe driving a brand-new vehicle. Then consider what it’s like for those whose commute puts them at risk. Perhaps their country is ripped apart by war or they’re fearful of being shaken down by corrupt gangs, cartels or government officials. What if fear of saying the wrong thing in front of the wrong person might put them and their family at risk? 

For many individuals across the globe, the American dream is alive — a place with a better quality of life. Safer. More stable. 

“All what I needed in life was peace, freedom and opportunity for myself and my kids,” said Eduardo, a skilled immigrant from Venezuela who shared his story with The Citizen. “I could not go anywhere else except the United States of America to achieve them. I came across seven countries to find qualities that nourish my family’s life. And I was willing to go even extra miles to find a prosperous life.” 

According to a study by the New American Economy Research Fund, which analyzes immigration, in 2016, there were 12,599 immigrants in Harrisonburg Metropolitan Area, which made up nearly 10 percent of the population. Between 2011 and 2016, the immigrant population grew by 73.2% with a contribution of more than $780 million to the Harrisonburg metro area gross domestic product in 2016.

“Immigrants’ contributions are a good foundation for economic growth in Harrisonburg,” said Frank Tamberrino, president and CEO of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce.

Foreign-born residents were less likely to have a bachelor’s degree or higher (17 percent versus 29.4 percent of the U.S.-born population) or advanced degree (6.8 percent versus 12.3 percent) in Harrisonburg Area, according to the New American Economy Research Fund’s study of the Harrisonburg area from 2018.

Often, though, college or advanced degrees in immigrants home country don’t always translate even for people who have worked years in the industry for which they were trained.

In the science, technology, engineering and math fields, immigrants fill 9.9 percent of the jobs. However, Immigrants make up 22.1 percent of the manufacturing labor force, which includes food production; fill 17.6 percent of hospitality and recreation jobs; provide 17.5 percent of transportation labor; hold down 17.1 percent of professional services jobs; and compose 15.4 percent of the agricultural workforce, the study said. 

Most of immigrants who have a degree outside of the U.S end up filling lower paid jobs, according to the local New Americans study. 

There are immigrants who used to be musicians but are now hanging chickens in an area poultry plant. There are lawyers who had worked in courts in their countries but are now driving trucks.  And there are engineers who managed projects but now are loading packages.

Untapped talents of immigrants  affects the U.S’ economy “Prior Migration Policy Institute (MPI) research has found that when college-educated immigrants work in low-skilled jobs, the resulting brain waste costs them and the U.S. economy almost $40 billion per year in forgone earnings and $10 billion in unrealized federal, state, and local taxes.” 

Kai Degner, director of professional development at James Madison University, said he sees other countries like Canada better utilizing immigrants’ talents and experiences. For example, he said, Canada specifically incorporates training of skilled immigrants into its state and local workforce development programs

In the United States, immigrants face barriers when trying to find a job that aligns with their expertise, including language, re-certification and networking, he said. 

Degner said Harrisonburg does have employers and other residents who are willing to find solutions. 

“We just have to work together and create a shared vision to utilize the talents of immigrants,” he said. 

There are many resources to help anyone, including immigrants, to start up business, and the Chamber of Commerce helps entrepreneurs get started, Tamberrino said. However, there is no organization to help immigrants get back to their former professions.

 JMU offers some professional classes such as Project Management. Graduates get certified by JMU, which might help immigrants’ resumés when seen by local employers, Degner said.

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