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‘Brain Waste’: Highly Skilled Immigrants Struggle To Fill Workforce Gaps

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As a greater proportion of college-educated immigrants flock to California, they face barriers to getting good jobs — a “brain waste” estimated to cost California and other states billions of dollars per year in lost individual earnings and tax revenues.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The Trump administration has made it harder for asylum seekers to win protection. It's also cut way back on the number of refugees accepted into this country. Even so the thousands of migrants here face big challenges in finding work in the first of a two part series for our California dream collaborations. KQ EDIS for Rita Jubala Romero reports

Speaker 2: 00:23 a small group of recently arrived refugees from Afghanistan, Nepal, Ethiopia and other countries are about to start a workshop at an office in San Jose.

Speaker 3: 00:33 Today we're going to talk about what a job interview looks like in America.

Speaker 2: 00:40 Staffers with the nonprofit international rescue committee or IRC go through basic do's and don'ts to ACE. A first meeting with a potential employer. They ask people to stand up and practice introducing themselves with a firm handshake. Hi, I'm sunny day. Nice to meet you.

Speaker 3: 00:58 Hi, my name [inaudible].

Speaker 2: 01:05 Well, some immigrants here are starting from scratch with not much English or a resume. Others come with university degrees and a lot more language and professional skills. Uh, my name is Eden ASFA. As far as 38 she worked in her native Eritrea as a secretary for the European union diplomatic office and also in community development with European NGOs here in San Jose. She starts work at 5:30 AM as a cashier at a restaurant. I need to support myself. About half the clients that we serve come to us with high high-skilled backgrounds. Kevin Davis coordinates career development programs at the local IRC office and all of them are going to get us rebel job first. The IRC helps about 200 humanitarian migrants per year. Find those first low skilled, often minimum wage jobs, and then rebuild careers and the U S through coaching and scholarships. Davis says immigrants living paycheck to paycheck face big barriers to get higher skilled jobs even if they've worked in those fields in their home countries.

Speaker 2: 02:08 Oftentimes foreign credentials for him degrees and even sometimes foreign work experience is not viewed the same as domestic American credentials or work experience in California, nearly half a million immigrants with at least a bachelor's degree are underemployed, meaning they're overqualified for their job or can't find work. That's according to an analysis by the migration policy Institute. That translates into a big loss in state and local taxes, almost 700 million in California per year. Jana [inaudible] lava is a senior policy analyst at the Institute. Unfortunately at the national level, there hasn't been really strategy developed on how to do what we call brain waste, but the lava says other countries invest more to help immigrants navigate their way into professional occupations. The U S not so much the approaches sink or swim. There is some limited federal and local financial support to help refugees and asylees adjust to life in the U S through organizations like IRC in San Jose.

Speaker 2: 03:13 Kevin Davis says that first survival job is like a stepping stone and once they can pay their immediate bills, then we work with them to sort of see. All right, well what comes next for Eden [inaudible] it was working as a cashier, wild training to draw people's blood for lab tests. Now she's getting ready to take her exam to become certified as a phlebotomy technician. When I come here, I knew I would be starting from scratch. I knew it's going to be a hard road ahead. Just have to take the steps I needed to take to get in there. The healthcare industry needs more workers in California. And as far as I says, she's excited to leave the restaurant and get a job quickly with a better paycheck. Her longterm plan is to work some and then go back to school to become a medical lab technician for the California report. I'm [inaudible] Romero in San Jose.

Speaker 1: 04:04 Joining me now is KQBD reporter for Rita chavala Romero and for Rita. Welcome. Thank you. Talk to us a little about that interview training session you were, your report opens with how was it conducted and were the trainees hopeful or apprehensive? Yeah, so that was a workshop

Speaker 2: 04:22 for, uh, how to land, uh, uh, how to do well during job interviews for refugees at the international rescue committee, um, offices in San Jose. And what was interesting is there were people there from around the world. There was a 19 year old, 19 year old man from Guinea and, uh, you know, a mom, uh, from El Salvador in her thirties. And, uh, people from Iraq. So, you know, just being in this room with like a dozen people with all these languages and all of these experiences from around the world was really interesting. And I think most of them were really hopeful. I mean, this was like the first step, you know, getting a job in the U S their first job means that they'll be able to make money and, um, you know, be able to, uh, support themselves and their families. So I think many of them saw it as the first step in really, you know, getting settled in this new life in the U S

Speaker 1: 05:19 now the challenges must be greatest for those refugees who can barely speak English. What resources are available to them.

Speaker 2: 05:27 Yes, you're right. I mean, it's not only a huge cultural change for many of these refugees coming to the U S but if you don't have the language skills, it just takes that much longer, you know, to be able to get a job that you want to, um, that you're interested in. Um, or even just deal with, you know, basic things in daily life. Um, I heard many of these people who, who didn't have the language skills, they're able to go to English as a foreign language classes and resettlement agencies often connect people with those resources.

Speaker 1: 06:00 Now I think that probably everybody has heard stories of refugees working in low paying jobs and they were professionals, trained professionals in their native countries. Why don't those educational and work credentials transfer more often to the same kind of professional employment in the U S

Speaker 2: 06:20 right? So especially for the really high school jobs and we're talking about, you know, doctors, engineers, um, there's a licensing process they have to go through and the U S and sometimes that's a very expensive and, and long process that takes a lot of effort and dedication to get through. So there's that, but there's also a hard from the employers side, um, sometimes employers don't know how to value the skills and education of the immigrants, you know, that are applying for those jobs. So I had, um, you know, one expert, um, explain it to me as, you know, how do you value someone who graduated from the university of Baghdad versus UCLA? So I think there's a lot of, you know, um, uh, information that, uh, people are working on to, to share, uh, about this talent. Uh, this talent pool that refugees and other immigrants bring into the country. Um, and then often, um, employers want us professional experience. And so if you just came to the country, even if you have loads of professional experience in your country of origin, that may not translate, um, you know, to getting a job in the U S because you lack that, uh, work experience in this country. So it's a chicken and an egg question sometimes, you know.

Speaker 1: 07:40 Yeah. Uh, one of the people in your report, we heard say that this is a, an instance of brain waste. Is there any effort being made to stop that waste?

Speaker 2: 07:51 Yeah, it's falling right now mostly on local governments. You know, trying to provide those resources to connect people to be able to use their skills and talents and jobs. And at the same time, you know, help the community because if people are able to get higher jobs where they can earn more money, you know, it also improves taxes for the community. Um, but, uh, there isn't right now from what I heard from the people I spoke with for the story a national, you know, big strategy on how to reduce this brain waste. But there are other countries like, um, uh, Australia and Canada who have immigration systems that are more reliant on an unprofessional immigrants. And, um, so in those countries there's more of an effort. Like for example, Canada has a website for example, that can tell you a really, you know, quickly and easily based on what province you're going to in Canada and what your profession is, what are the requirements you need to, um, you know, meet for licensing and also has links to, uh, organizations and other resources to help you do that.

Speaker 2: 09:05 And I heard the country, Canada is even encouraging immigrants to go through the steps before they even get to Canada so that they're ready to work as soon as they get to the country. And, um, from what I've heard, there's nothing like that, um, in the U S as that, you know, big fat at the federal level. Now for Rita, this is the first installment of a two part report you did on refugee retraining. What will we hear in tomorrow's report? So tomorrow you'll hear the very interesting story of a doctor, a physician who was trained in Cuba, and he had seven years of experience working as a doctor in Cuba and Venezuela. And you'll hear about his struggles to be able to work as a doctor again in the U S I have been speaking with KQD reporter for Rita ciabatta Ramiro and for Rita, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you Maureen.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.