In June 2021, Migration Policy Institute (MPI) released their latest study on un- and underemployed immigrants in the United States: “Leaving Money on the Table: The Persistence of Brain Waste among College-Educated Immigrants” by Jeanne Batalova and Michael Fix. Updated information on underemployment among college-educated and professionally trained immigrants and refugees identify needs and opportunities today, as well as ongoing and emerging trends.
The percentage of new immigrants holding a bachelor’s degree or higher has increased in the past 30 years, from 27% in 1990 to 48% in 2019. However, 2.3 million of these immigrants are unemployed or underemployed. Underemployment has serious consequences for individuals and the U.S. economy, causing college-educated immigrants to surrender $40 billion annually in income and local and federal governments to surrender $10 billion in taxes.
The authors of the MPI report use data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys to better understand trends and key factors linked to underemployment. Here are their key findings:
- While all immigrants are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed, the greatest challenges are faced by Black and Latino immigrants. Approximately 1 in 3 Latino and 1 in 4 Black immigrant college graduates were found to be underemployed in 2019.
- Internationally educated women are more likely to be out of the labor force (38.6% of the subpopulation) or underutilized (26.2% of the subpopulation) in comparison to internationally educated immigrant men, U.S.-educated immigrants, and U.S. natives.
- Almost 50% of immigrants entering through humanitarian channels experienced underemployment in 2018.
- Immigrants in fields that require specific licensing (law and education) or strong English communication skills (business and journalism) are more likely to be underemployed than those in healthcare or STEM.
- English-language proficiency is the strongest predictor of underemployment. 55% of professionally qualified immigrants who reported speaking English “not well” or “not at all” and 33% of those who reported speaking English “well” were underemployed compared to 15% of English-only speakers.
Despite high levels of underemployment, progress is being made. MPI points out that organizations such as Upwardly Global have been integral to the process of accumulating knowledge about the barriers that immigrants and refugees face when seeking employment.
Additionally, Upwardly Global actively works with immigrant professionals, employer organizations, and legislators to address these barriers and help immigrants find jobs that match their skill set. For example, in Michigan, which has one of the lowest immigrant underemployment rates, Upwardly Global has been cooperating over several years with the Michigan International Talent Solutions—part of the Office of Global Michigan—to help engage and train immigrant and refugee professionals so they can restart their careers.
To continue with these efforts, MPI encourages policy and advocacy groups to focus their attention on four key areas:
- increasing the availability of English classes (especially for immigrants who say they know the language “well” but are not fluent),
- breaking down barriers for immigrants in highly regulated occupations in which immigrants typically face underemployment,
- developing antidiscrimination policies related to employer actions and licensing bodies to address the disadvantage among Black and Latino immigrants (and natives),
- and creating avenues for underemployed health-care professionals to join the health-care workforce, especially considering the current public-health crisis.
Federally, MPI supports the passage of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and the re-establishment of the White House Task Force on New Americans. Upwardly Global’s policy recommendations, which include and expand upon those, can be read here.
The MPI study adds to the growing body of research emphasizing the importance of recognizing and involving the skills and experiences of college-educated immigrants and refugees – vital for all those who recognize the challenge and potential, and who care about immigrants, refugees and our shared future.
An MPI webinar on June 24, 2021 highlighted the study’s key results and focused on opportunity in the healthcare space, featuring the study’s author Jeanne Batalova, and guest speakers Muhammed Khalif of Washington Academy for International Medical Graduates, David Dyssegaard Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute, Upwardly Global partner Shaun E. Smith of New York-Presbyterian, and our own CEO & President Jina Krause-Vilmar. You can listen to the audio webinar here.