From the Director: Tackling the “Brain Waste” Challenge for Detroit

By Steve Tobocman

National organizations like Upwardly Global, World Education Services (WES) Global Talent Bridge, the Welcome Back Initiative, and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians have worked for years to help college-educated immigrants achieve meaningful employment in the U.S. Noting that college-degreed immigrants are significantly more likely (than U.S.-born professionals) to be working in jobs and fields that do not utilize their educational and professional backgrounds or simply are more likely to be unemployed, these advocates have labeled the phenomenon “brain waste.” In short, the underutilization of the skills and talents of college-educated immigrants means that economic assets within the U.S. economy and the local economies that comprise it are going to waste, while the country faces a skills shortage in many of the professions for which these talented immigrants are trained.

Last December in Brooklyn, the IMPRINT coalition hosted an exciting discussion of two new groundbreaking studies on the “brain waste” of highly-skilled (college-educated) immigrants for over 100 immigrant economic development practitioners and enthusiasts.

During the session, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a leading immigrant integration policy and research institute, discussed research quantifying the lost economic contributions from the underemployment or unemployment of immigrants with college degrees. MPI will release its research (sponsored by WES and The Partnership for a New American Economy) in the spring. The study will quantify the cost of “brain waste” by unveiling substantial loss in economic activity, as well as foregone state and federal taxes.

The second piece of research presented was the “Steps to Success” study released by IMPRINT in September 2015. The IMPRINT report detailed the experiences of college-educated immigrants in six U.S. metros—Boston, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, San Jose, and Seattle. This first-of-its-kind study is based upon survey responses of more than 4,000 college-educated immigrants living in these regions. According to the research, only 22 percent of those surveyed achieved professional success – defined as earnings success of $50,000 annually, employed in positions making some use of their higher education on the job, and working in a professional or managerial job.

English Language SkillsThe report sought to identify what factors contributed to successful integration of highly-skilled immigrant talent. The report’s key findings show that:

  • Social capital is powerful: The survey showed that there is a remarkably strong correlation between the size of an immigrant’s social network and his or her likelihood of success.
  • English really matters:Across the board, stronger English language skills were correlated with virtually every possible measure of immigrant success.
  • Immigrants take enterprising approaches:Numerous self-improvement strategies were reported, including academic credential evaluation, English language classes, and additional education in the United States.
  • S. education helps: Survey respondents with at least some of their formal education at U.S. institutions usually achieve more success than those without.

Detroit respondentsFindings from the 391 Detroit-area survey respondents show no statistically significant difference between Detroit-area respondents’ achievement of success and the other metros surveyed, but do point to a few notable differences among other findings. Detroit-area respondents were more likely to speak English “very well” (71% compared to 65% of all other respondents), and more likely to have pursued additional higher education in the U.S. (63% compared to 55% of all other respondents). They also found, however, that Detroit-area respondents were far more likely to report lower rates of social capital – both upon arrival to the U.S. and today – as well as greater discrimination in their employment search. With an estimated 100,000 current job openings in the state, there is strong economic motivation to remove the barriers immigrant professionals face and help them secure meaningful employment.

Here in Detroit, these issues are being addressed head on by the State’s Michigan International Talent Solutions initiative (MITS), Upwardly Global, and Global Detroit’s Global Talent Retention Initiative (GTRI) and Cultural Ambassadors programs. MITS provides skilled immigrants with customized job search training, and partnered with Upwardly Global, trains international job seekers to succeed in the professional job search process in Michigan.

GTRI-logo1.jpgGTRI, the nation’s first international student retention program, helps retain the international students studying at Michigan’s colleges and universities – which today numbers more than 32,000, ranking the state 9th in the nation, a population that has grown nearly 60 percent over the past decade. GTRI assists students in understanding their post-graduation options, prepares them for the employment search, and connects them to employers looking to maintain their competitive edge by hiring the region’s top talent. GTRI hosts events for students to network (build social capital) with each other, with local employers and with community members.

Cultural Ambassadors LogoGTRI works closely with Global Detroit’s Cultural Ambassadors Program, a volunteer network tasked with helping to integrate immigrant professionals through building social capital and professional networks. Through the Cultural Ambassadors Connector Program, international students – and other immigrant professionals – are connected to established professional ‘Connectors’ in their field to talk shop; the ‘Connector’ then refers them to additional professional contacts to continue building their network. The meetings help the students build relationships and grow their business networks, making it more likely they will be in the loop when opportunities circulate.

International students are also recruited to join the network and serve as Ambassadors on their campus to further outreach to fellow students, all the while strengthening their own social networks and ties to their community. Many Cultural Ambassadors are also engaged in English language tutoring, both in ESL classes offered by our partners, and in one-on-one language partner relationships.

Both studies are worth a read to better understand how your region can make full use of the incredible immigrant talent that is going to “waste” while employers have professional positions that go unfilled, and promote upward social mobility for highly skilled immigrants. These reports show how critical immigrant professional integration is, and metro Detroit and Michigan already have in place strong systems for combatting the barriers immigrant professionals face. Global Detroit continues to work closely with our partners locally and across the country to develop new strategies to connect skilled immigrants with unmet employer needs.


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