From the Director: Cracking the Immigrant Talent Code Can Take some Thought and Energy

By Steve Tobocman

I have been approached several times by folks who have sat through my Global Detroit presentations of the incredible contributions of immigrant talent to Metro Detroit and Michigan’s economy with concerns that I am telling native-born Michiganders that we are untalented, lazy, or unskilled.  Having invested all but 5 of my 44 years of life in this state and having served its residents in the State House, this sentiment is completely at odds with my own passions and belief in Detroit, the Metro region, our great state, and its people.  Detroiters and Michiganders represent the best of human nature and have innovated in so many ways that I truly believe we represent the future of America’s 21st century success.

That said, reading the Global Detroit report and its staggering statistics can make one feel as if waving a magic wand and bringing immigrants to our city and state will solve all our problems.  I mean if immigrants in Michigan are 1.5 times as likely to possess a college degree, 3 times as likely to major in STEM fields, 3 times as likely to start a business, 6 times as likely to start a high-tech business, and more than 8 times as likely to file an international patent, isn’t it true that just getting more immigrants would solve all our problems?


Global Detroit has long advocated for more robust immigration as a catalyst for Detroit and the region’s economic resurgence.  It may be, in fact, one of our most important strategies.  But investing in an international future for the region requires building the infrastructure to make it work.  Should we be so fortunate as to have Governor Snyder’s proposal for 50,000 skilled immigrants granted by the federal government, we are going to have significant infrastructure to develop to integrate that population.

brain wasteThis week, a new study from the Migration Policy Institute highlights why good immigrant integration infrastructure is so important.  The study highlights a “brain waste” among college-educated immigrants who are significantly more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than the native-born college educated counterparts.  Specifically:

1.6 million, or 23 percent, of the nearly 7.2 million college-educated immigrants ages 25 and older in the civilian labor force are in low-skilled jobs or are unemployed. Brain waste particularly affects the foreign born who earned their bachelor’s degrees abroad, with 26 percent in low-skilled jobs or unemployed. As a point of comparison, 20 percent of immigrants who obtained their bachelor’s degree abroad worked in low-skilled jobs versus 12 percent of college-educated native-born workers.

Fortunately, there are several integration initiatives that have proven track records at addressing and resolving these challenges.  Michigan is lucky to be the fourth state in the nation to have worked with Upwardly Global to develop online guides to assist skilled immigrants and refugees in obtaining the professional licenses for which they are trained.  Already several thousand online visitors have viewed these guides and dozens of Michigan immigrants and refugees have been assisted by Upwardly Global programs—all without having any Upwardly Global staff in Michigan.

Upwardly Global is not alone in serving college-educated immigrants and refugees.  World Education Services, the Welcome Back Initiative, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, and the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education work with Upwardly Global to form IMPRINT, a network of immigrant professional integration programs.  Each of these programs provides incredible expertise and a proven track record of results at assisting talented immigrants develop meaningful careers that contribute to their local regional economies.

Certainly there is ample evidence that attracting college-educated international talent can be a powerful economic driver.  In fact, it is the reason almost 20 cities and metros will be flocking to Pittsburgh on June 12th for the Global Great Lakes Network second convening.  These cities, from St. Louis to Buffalo, from Louisville to Minneapolis, have all figured out the economic potential of being a global city.  But as the nation considers immigration reform and regions clamor to attract immigrant talent, let us not forget that we have to build the integration infrastructure to make robust immigration a positive event for host communities and all newcomers, including those who might need assistance in applying their skills and talents.

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