Rust Belt Innovation Leads U.S. Efforts to Utilize Untapped Immigrant Talent

By Steve Tobocman

“Human capital is the ultimate capital,” notes Demetri Papademetriou, Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. On December 7, MPI unveiled groundbreaking research in a new study, Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States. In introducing the research, Papademetriou concluded that “Brain waste is the ultimate waste.”

Brain waste, or skills underutilization, is defined as the unemployment or underemployment of college graduates who cannot fully utilize their skills and education in the workplace despite their high professional qualifications.

MPI’s research concludes that skilled immigrants and refugees in the U.S. (possessing a college degree or more) are significantly more likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to be unemployed or underemployed, documenting that some 1.9 million (or 25%) of the 7.6 million university educated immigrants and refugees fell into this category between 2009-2013. Nationally, immigrant brain waste cost $39.4 billion in lost annual earnings and $10.2 billion in lost annual taxes from underutilization of this talent. The study represents the first research to ever quantify these direct impacts.

The research included a more detailed dive into the impacts of brain waste in seven states, including Michigan. Michigan suffers $510 million in lost annual earnings and nearly $50 million in lost annual state tax dollars from brain waste of immigrants and refugees. Remarkably, despite significant struggles in the Michigan economy during the period of study (2009-13), immigrant brain waste was found to be below the national average and roughly equal to the underemployment and unemployment of their U.S.-born college educated workers in Michigan. There are many factors that explain this, including the high proportion of Michigan’s college-educated immigrants who are on a work visa (and, thus, working in their skilled profession), who possess an advanced degree or a degree from a U.S.-based university, and strong English skills.

The research also highlights the tremendous talent that exists in Michigan’s immigrant and refugee communities. In fact, 53% of recent immigrants to Michigan (those arriving between 2011-15) posses a four-year college degree. This is nearly 2.5 times the rate of college education among Michigan’s U.S.-born population and is higher than the national average for immigrants (48% of whom have college degrees among the arrivals during this time). The growing prevalence of highly-skilled immigrants is significant considering only 33% of immigrants arriving before the 2007-09 recession and 27% of those who arrived before 1990 possess college degrees.

MPI hosted a webcast event for the December 7 release of the brain waste study and invited Global Detroit Director Steve Tobocman to participate as one of three national experts to discuss the research. Specifically, Steve was asked to discuss the incredible work that has been undertaken in Michigan since the Global Detroit report was released in 2010.

Michigan is a national leader in skilled immigrant integration thanks, in large part, to the work of Governor Snyder’s Michigan Office for New Americans, which has pioneered the Michigan International Talent Solutions program to assist unemployed and underemployed skilled immigrants in attaining their credentials, preparing for the job market, and finding suitable employment. In its first year of operations, MITS has successfully placed 33 immigrants in jobs that, on average, have raised their salaries by $43,000 or $1.1 million, collectively. MITS builds upon earlier work by Upwardly Global in Michigan that saw similar results, placing 26 skilled immigrants in jobs that raised average salaries by $42,000.

The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) has led the nation in creating guides to assist foreign-traded and educated workers in attaining their professional licenses and credentials, with over 45 specific professions covered. Moreover, on December 5, the Michigan Office of New Americans announced grants to ESL programs around the state that will help immigrants and refugees to successfully enter the Michigan workforce and utilize their skills to fill unmet talent needs.

Steve also discussed Global Detroit’s Cultural Ambassadors program, which has helped to create nearly 50 matches for skilled immigrants and international students to help them build their professional networks. Professional and social networks, as well as strong English skills have been identified by both the MPI study and an earlier study by the Steps to Success IMPRINT study as critical assets for college-degreed immigrants and refugees to connect with meaningful employment that fully utilizes their professional skills, degrees, and experience.

The MPI study was conducted in partnership with the New American Economy and World Education Services. It is the first study to quantify the negative impacts in terms of lost earnings and state and federal tax dollars. If talent and human capital is the 21st Century economy’s most valuable asset, then state and local economic development practitioners, workforce development programs, and public policymakers ought to take heed. Otherwise they are leaving untapped talent, earnings, and tax dollars on the table. Fortunately, thanks to the vision of Global Detroit and the work of its many partners, especially the State of Michigan and Upwardly Global, Michigan is leading the nation at minimizing the costs of brain waste and utilizing untapped talent to help businesses fill unmet talent needs to enhance their competitiveness.

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