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Are too many highly-skilled immigrants underemployed for a lifetime?

When it comes to social issues in the news, many highly educated immigrants coming to the U.S. without a job lined up have been unable to find work at their level of education, leading to considerable "brain waste," Purdue University researchers have found, in a new study, "Attracting Global Talent and Then What? Overeducated Immigrants in the United States," recently published in the Journal of Regional Science. Lots of Americans never find jobs that match their education, especially older women returning to work at an age when some employers complain insurance rates are too high.

Are too many highly-skilled immigrants underemployed for a lifetime?
Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images

You also may wish to check out a February 24, 2013 news release by Keith Robinson, "Purdue research: Lots of 'brain waste' among highly educated immigrants." There's a huge problem across the nation of job-education mismatches among male immigrants in the United States between 1980 and 2009. The results of a new study suggest that educational attainment levels do not match occupational education requirements for almost half of all immigrants.

Overeducation and underemployment affects college graduates in the USA as well as immigrants from other countries looking for work

Overeducation among high-skilled immigrants vastly exceeds that of comparable natives. Sometimes it depends upon what your college major taught you as far as job skills and internship connections. One example might be a physician with extensive experience in his or her own country who marries a US citizen and can't find work as a doctor in the USA because English skills are not at a level where the physician can pass the national board exams.

Or there's a long wait for a green card, or the doctor (if female) returns to her own country to have her children, where the cost of birthing is lower or free in the hospital she worked in a physician in her own country, to give one example out of many possibilities. There's a long list of reasons of what happens when a highly-skilled immigrant comes to the USA only to find underemployment is a reality, especially when the family runs out of money to improve language or other skills or the person is unable to practice the profession trained for whether it's medical, engineering, or anything else.

The word 'probit' refers to a "probability unit." Social scientists speak of 'probits' when they refer to probability unit models (probit models) of overeducation. What it amounts to is that overeducation models suggest that personal characteristics operate in similar fashion for immigrants and natives.

There's also the issue of immigrant brain waste

Is such brain waste above average in gateway states, metropolitan areas and in prosperous high-wage areas? Another problem is whether the immigrant has proficiency in English. Does the person use English at home or does he or she speak to spouse and children, if any in the native language? Then there's the issue of length of residence. Can long-time residence help reduce the overeducation risk among high-skilled immigrants?

The new research assesses the prevalence and determinants of such problems when it comes to underemployment of immigrants as a social issue. Agricultural economics professors Brigitte Waldorf and Raymond Florax were on a team of researchers who analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and its American Community Survey to determine the prevalence and persistence of job-education mismatch among male immigrants in the U.S. from 1980 to 2009.

With so many overeducated non-immigrants in the US and in other countries driving cabs or clerking, the reality of education applies to people from all walks of life, not only highly-skilled immigrants trying to find work in a field where they have experience and advanced degrees. The reality of overeducation faces college graduates when there is an oversupply of people with degrees in one area, but little market demand for people with that particular type of training and skills.

"Overeducation is more of a reality for people who come to the United States to be with family," says Waldorf, co-author of the research, according to the February 24, 2014 news release, Purdue research: Lots of 'brain waste' among highly educated immigrants. "They have not been recruited by a specific employer, and they often do not find a job that matches their education."

The researchers found that, throughout the period, the level of education of nearly half of immigrants was above the education requirements for their job, compared with one fourth of men born and living in the U.S. The prevalence of such "brain waste" exceeded 40 percent for immigrants with a bachelor's degree, 50 percent for those with a doctoral or professional degree and 75 percent for those with a master's degree. The overeducation prevalence for U.S. natives was 10-20 percentage points lower. Over time, immigrants find suitable jobs, but not to the extent of U.S. natives.

Waldorf notes that prevailing thinking assumes that highly educated immigrants are a significant gain for the U.S. economy and society

The researchers say that "given the abundance of foreign and domestic talent in the United States, with much of it being poorly matched in the labor market, a policy shift toward attracting even more global talent may actually be backfiring," according to the news release.

One possible consequence of large numbers of highly educated immigrants is that some Americans might look for opportunities abroad to find a job that better matches their education. Similarly, immigrants who are highly skilled and highly educated may become more likely to return to their home country or move to a third country because they are unable to get a suitable job in the U.S., at least initially. "In anticipation of being overeducated in the United States, migrants from other countries may also simply not choose the United States in the first place," the researchers explain in the news release.

The study also identified circumstances influencing the risk of immigrants being overeducated for the jobs for which they were hired

One key finding was that assimilation - integrating into U.S. society such as by learning the English language - helped highly educated immigrants find a job that adequately matched their education level. Conversely, lack of proficiency in English "was the most powerful predictor" of immigrants unable to get a suitable job, the researchers conclude.

Policymakers should put greater emphasis on measures that foster the assimilation and integration of newcomers when considering a shift toward increasing immigration to attract specific skills, the researchers said. Possible strategies include English language classes and extending work permits to family members.

Is the problem a lack of good enough skills in English to do the job as well as those without language issues?

Women were not included in the study because women often had complex labor market careers, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, that included stints of part-time employment or temporarily dropping out of the labor force from having children. Other researchers on the team were from the U.S. Census Bureau's Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division and the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

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