Washington would benefit if the state helped more immigrants reach their potential.
Brain waste is a problem in so many ways that I had to stop and read more when I saw the phrase in the title of a report.
Was it about people piddling away hours on email or social media, or sitting transfixed in front of a television? Was it about the current presidential campaign or shortcomings in education?
It could have been any of those, but this time the report was about the loss of human and economic potential that happens when immigrants come to Washington with education and skills they don’t use because of barriers that strand them in low-paying jobs, or leave them unemployed altogether.
Foreign-born residents make up 13.5 percent of the state’s population, or 898,091 people, and their circumstances vary greatly. The report is about people who are neither high-tech employees nor immigrants who come with few skills. They are teachers who drive taxis, or registered nurse working as nursing assistants.
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“Reducing Brain Waste: Creating Career Pathways for Foreign-Educated Immigrants in Washington State,” was produced by OneAmerica, which was founded (named Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington at the time) after 9/11 to serve as an advocacy organization for immigrants in Washington. The report lays out the problem and offers a number of solutions. And running through it is the belief that what’s good for immigrants is good for Washington, particularly that immigrants reaching their full occupational potential will enrich the economy. Who could argue with that?
You’d think a nation of immigrants would have in place efficient systems for integrating immigrants into communities where they live. And there are many programs, but, according to the report, not quite enough focus on getting the most out of skilled workers in the middle of the economic range.
And maybe that’s lacking because so many immigrants in the past started their American lives in jobs that didn’t require high skills or college degrees.
As recently as 1980, according to the report, low-skilled immigrants to the United States outnumbered those with college degrees, 2-1. But in 2010, higher-skilled immigrants constituted the majority of people entering the country for the first time
. Washington has followed that pattern, and in the Seattle area, high skilled-immigrants are twice as common as low-skilled immigrants, the report says.
Anyone who lives in this area is aware of the large number of people who’ve come to work at companies like Microsoft or Amazon. Those immigrants have the support of companies that recruit them.
But according to the report, many local agencies that work with immigrant and refugee populations around Puget Sound say more people who have college degrees are coming to them looking for help.
About 84,600 immigrants in Washington had college degrees when they arrived. According to the report, 23 percent of those immigrants are either working in low-skilled jobs or are unemployed.
The problem is much worse for foreign-educated black and Latino immigrants. The report cited a 2013 study that found an underemployment rate nationally of 46 percent for people from Latin America and 47 percent for immigrants from Africa.
That won’t surprise the many darker-skinned, American-born citizens who are unemployed or underemployed, despite college degrees.
In addition to race and gender issues, the report identified barriers that are shared by many underemployed immigrants.
Sometimes immigrants lack information about the way the U.S. job market works, about basics like interviewing, résumés, networking.
Immigrants may need language help specific to their field’s specialized vocabulary.
Getting certified is often a big hurdle for people in regulated professions in which U.S. standards differ from those in their country of origin.
Those are just a few of the barriers, but most can be addressed. The report cites programs here and around the country that are working and could be adopted on a larger scale to help more people get work that takes advantage of their education and training.
It’s possible to make a smooth process out of a sometimes haphazard patchwork of approaches and thereby help both immigrants and the communities where they settle.
Brain waste in whatever form is just dumb.