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Is New Hampshire Putting Skilled Immigrants to Good Use?

Many educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed
Flikr Creative Commons / jurvetson
Many educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed

You’ve heard of “Brain Drain,”but how about “Brain Waste”?

Some educated foreigners leave their home countries hoping for a better life in America, but many wind up unemployed, or working in low-skilled jobs. Census data show that immigrants who settle in New Hampshire have more education than the national average, but higher rates of unemployment too.

It’s a common narrative: America is the land of opportunity, where a hardworking immigrant can prosper.

Some do, but some don’t.  

According to theMigration Policy institute 2.7 million educated immigrants are unemployed, or working low-skill jobs like dishwashers and taxi drivers.

Take Sarah Alier for example: she’s a doctor who fled her home in South Sudan. She says when she arrived in New Hampshire in the late 90's she thought she would get her medical license right away. But between getting settled in the country, and providing for herself and her family, there wasn’t much time to study.

"Ok so there three tests for the medical licensing," she says, "Number one is very difficult because it is things you don’t use in your medical field. There is math, and physiology and probably some of us took them maybe 20 years ago!"

As you might have guessed, Alier failed the exam.

She hoped volunteering at a local hospital would help her get back up to speed, but she says she wasn't happy with the task she was given.

"You know the volunteer job they gave me? It was to change beds," she remembers, chuckling, "It was to change beds. It was humiliating... it was very bad."

In the end she changed fields, and took a job as a caseworker for other refugees.

This is what’s called “Brain-Waste”: highly educated immigrants who are “Brain-Drained” away from their homes, but then aren’t put to optimal use here in America.

Jennifer Brennan is the director of IMPRINT, a national organization that helps connect educated immigrants with jobs that suit them.  She says that when those connections are made "it has a very significant economic impact, just in terms of growing the tax base."

For example, Brennan talks about a doctor from Iraq, who had done groundbreaking work in his field, but but for a time he could only find work at a hot dog stand.

When he did make it back into medicine, his new employer found he had a lot more to offer.

"He was able to start work at a tissue bank," Brennan says, "and today is in charge of a patent that’s gone through for some of the things that he was developing at on the ground in Iraq."

A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 educated immigrants working in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math, 86 additional jobs are generated.

The latest census data indicate that New Hampshire might be missing out on some of those jobs. In New Hampshire there are 42 percent more educated foreigners than nationally. Immigrants in New Hampshire have even higher rates of education than native-born residents, and the local unemployment for this population sits at around 8 percent, compared to 5.5 percent nation-wide.

Data from the American Community Survey, 3-year Average

 Powered by Tableau


But no matter how educated someone is or where they settle, transitioning to a new culture is hard.

Dawn Higgins is the director of cross cultural communication at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, and she says "it can feel overwhelming" to come to a new country.

She helps foreigners who assume that they will have to start their education over from the beginning.

One of the things she does is help them get an idea of what their degree from home is worth in the US.

"So they’d send their document to New York and they’d get a document back that says this person has a US equivalent to a bachelors in physics for example, or this person has three years towards a bachelors in psychology," Higgins says. 

But going through all of this doesn’t guarantee anyone that they will get the job they want. 

Sarah Alier, from Sudan, has lived in the US for 12 years, and has yet to work as physician. She has learned English and raised her kids here, who she says are one hundred percent American.

But she says after all that time, she still hasn’t been able to let go of being a doctor. 

She says, "What I do is like every night before I go to bed, I have to study. For all these years I never stop studying for it."

Alier hopes to retake the exam soon, and get back to work doing what she was trained to do.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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