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Educated Immigrants Often Can’t Find Jobs that Match Skills

In Peru,
Ines Gonzalez-Lehman directed a 14-person marketing team at a high-tech firm.
After marrying an American and immigrating legally to the U.S., she found
herself making copies and answering phones at the bottom of the corporate

The immigration reform bill that recently failed in the
Senate would have increased the number of visas for highly educated workers.
But there remain tens of thousands of skilled immigrants like Gonzalez-Lehman
who are here and authorized to work, but stuck in jobs where their experience
is wasted.

Learning how their industry works in the United States,
finding out about openings, talking up their assets in a way that appeals to an
American employer those steps, simple to someone educated in the United States,
can block the path between a newcomer and work she is well-trained to perform.

“This is clearly an under-leveraged talent pool,”
said John Bradley, director of human resources at the investment bank JP Morgan
Chase & Co. “We’re in constant need of a supply of talent and this is
a viable, well-trained source that we hadn’t focused on in the past.”

JP Morgan Chase is among the dozens of companies actively
seeking trained immigrants already in the United States through Upwardly
Global, a San Francisco-based nonprofit placement agency. The organization,
which also has a New York office, is unusual among immigrant advocacy groups in
that it focuses solely on well-educated legal immigrants, sharpening their
ability to market themselves and connecting them with employers interested in
their skills.

Executive director Jane Leu got the idea when she met an
Iraqi engineer and a Bosnian surgeon during a visit to a chicken processing
plant in New York. Leu, then a refugee resettlement worker, thought they could
do better.

“Our system was well-oiled to resettle people into
low-wage jobs,” she said. “But these people were passionate about
their careers.”

Tales of educated immigrants stuck in lowly occupations have
become part of American lore: The Polish doctor working as a doorman, the
Lebanese accountant who drives a cab, the Pakistani engineer who makes ends
meet serving tables. New arrivals are added to the roster every day.

Leu says English fluency and what she calls the perception
problem “when most people think of Bolivians, they don’t think
engineers” are big hurdles.

But the biggest challenge is connecting the newcomer to the
American job search system and workplace culture.

“An immigrant can know how to do a job, but not how to
get that job,” Leu said.

Over 1.2 million people became legal permanent residents of
the United States last year. Many brought with them professional training,
along with foreign languages and the ability to work cross-culturally qualities
prized by companies that are crossing borders themselves.

But unlike Canada and Australia, which select immigrants
with desirable education and connect them with jobs that put their training to
use, the U.S. makes no official attempt to integrate immigrants into the

To some observers, that’s just as well.

“The market economy generally does a good job of
connecting people,” said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the
nonpartisan think tank National Foundation for American Policy.

That approach fits comfortably within the American appreciation
for those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

“Here, you have lots of opportunities, but it’s up to
you,” said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst with the nonpartisan,
Washington DC-based Migration Policy Institute. “The assumption in the U.S.
is that if they bring these skills, they must have resources, so they’re the
ones who need least support.”

But advocates say it doesn’t work for everyone. Among
immigrants who got degrees abroad and arrived in the past 10 years, 42 percent
of Latin Americans, 21 percent of Asians and 18 percent of Europeans are doing
work that requires no training, according to an MPI analysis of statistics from
the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Foreigners who studied abroad lack a network of college
buddies who would know about openings and get them in the door, Leu said. And
they’re often ill at ease with American corporate culture and its emphasis on
self-promotion and individualism.

In an interview, they might shy away from giving recruiters
the hard sell Americans expect, counting on epic resumes to do the talking. But
their resumes are often laundry lists of job titles that don’t bubble over with
the action verbs Americans use to emphasize achievement, according to Leu.

Employers, on the other hand, aren’t trained to recognize
foreign degrees and job experience.

“In Peru, I was somebody. I was nobody here,” said
Gonzalez-Lehman, her hands flying up in frustration.

Upwardly Global places immigrants like Gonzalez-Lehman in
mentorships and programs that prep both candidates and recruiters. She landed a
job in sales at Google Inc., linking Web sites that target Hispanic audiences
with advertisers interested in reaching those groups.

“Now I really feel I am an asset, I am
productive,” she said.

Alcides Hernandez also went from well-connected professional
at the top of his field to floundering newcomer without a toehold in a foreign

He left a management and research job at El Salvador’s
largest utility company to be with his wife, whom he met while vacationing in
California. He assumed his degrees in industrial engineering, his MBA and his
experience setting national price structures for electrical rates in his home
country would land him a suitable job.

Instead, he supported his new wife and baby juggling gigs as
an electrician’s helper, a teller at a courier company, and on weekends, a
wedding videographer. He went to job fairs, and got no calls back.

“That was one of the most difficult years of my
life,” he said of 2002, the year he moved to the United States. “I
had this education. I’d worked hard, moved up. But here I was so far from my

Eventually a day laborer center passed him Upwardly Global’s

Leu connected him with a mentor at Pacific Gas &
Electric Co. who taught him the jargon and structure of the U.S. utilities
industry. Staff helped him shorten and sharpen his pages-long resume. Leu ran
him through half-dozen mock interviews, grilling him in cafes and over the

When he landed an interview for a job as an electric rate
analyst for the city of Roseville, he knew the industry and its regulations. He
knew the terminology. And the modest, soft-spoken Hernandez could project the
can-do attitude that would hook his prospective employers.

The day he got the job was one of his happiest since he
arrived, he said.

“I’m part of this professional world again,” he

For immigrants like Hernandez, having a job that fits their
qualifications isn’t just about getting a paycheck. It also allows them to
reclaim their identity as professionals. After securing his position at
Roseville Electric, Hernandez was able to build a life here that resembles the
one he had at home. He owns his home, completed a second MBA, and has just
earned his citizenship.

“This was what I’d dreamed of,” he said. “Now
I really feel I am part of this country.”

Upwardly Global:

JP Morgan Chase:


– Associated Press

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