Brain waste: Immigrants with foreign degrees find U.S. employers reluctant to hire them

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Eugenia Stanton came to Philadelphia from Israel with an MBA, but U.S. employers don't value foreign degrees.

When Jean Guillaume came to the United States from Haiti in 1999, he was a college-educated radio journalist with a can’t-stop-me plan to burn up America’s airwaves with his direct style and quirky intellect.

Instead, he worked as a dishwasher, then as a corrections officer. Guillaume is a U.S. citizen who came here after his father, who was already living here, sent for him.

“My dream of being in the Philadelphia media was shattered back then,” said Guillaume, who was left with no choice but to turn to kitchens and convicts to make the money he needed to live here, and  also to support his family in Haiti. Eventually, he became a community organizer and now hosts a small radio show heard among Haitian Americans.

“I had what it takes, but the piece of paper [his Haitian diploma] isn’t what was wanted,” he says. “It was a waste of talent.”

Such is the consequence of arriving in America with a diploma from a school that no employer here has heard of. Maybe you’re smart, maybe you even topped your class. But often, an immigrant with a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a foreign school will quickly find that a sheepskin not made in America fails to impress on these shores.

There’s even a term for it: brain waste.

“It’s actually quite common,” said Nicole Pumphrey, deputy director of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, the Center City nonprofit that helps integrate immigrants into American life, and mentors foreign-born professionals navigating the U.S. world of work.

“If I’m an American employer, I don’t know about an immigrant’s college or law school. So, I’ll immediately discount their education and skills. It can be really isolating and lonely to have your entire identity stripped from you like that.”

Immigrants often find work, but, as with Guillaume, it will frequently be in a lesser position — a high school labor-market job vs. a college labor-market job. That is, a bartender vs. a human resources worker, said economist Paul Harrington, director of the Center of Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.

Working at a high school labor-market job with a college degree is called mal-employment, Harrington said. And that costs money. The salary difference for a college-educated person working in a college labor-market job vs. a high school labor-market job can be 45 percent to 80 percent, he added.

“Mal-employed people really struggle, many of them unable to get jobs in the college labor market, despite their college degrees,” Harrington said.

Harrington analyzed census figures describing both the employment levels of immigrants who earned their college degrees in the U.S., and immigrants who came here with degrees from their home countries.

People with foreign degrees were twice as likely to be mal-employed — 36 percent — as immigrants who were educated in U.S. colleges and universities — 18 percent — according to Harrington.

Africans and Asians have the highest levels of mal-employment: 47 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

It’s a little better for people from India (28.9 percent mal-employment) and China (23.6 percent) because U.S. employers are starting to recognize the good schools that certain engineering students graduate from in those countries, Harrington said.

But, he added,  “if you just land here with a degree from a school in Nepal, it’s really tough to get a job. No one knows what it really means, how to judge the school. And that’s what employers do.”

Potential employers didn’t know what to think of Eugenia Stanton’s bachelor’s degree in economics and her M.B.A. from Ben Gurion University in Israel.

A former drill sergeant in the Israeli army, Stanton, 28, a permanent U.S. resident who has been here for a year, said simply, “Our diplomas are not translated in a good way.”

Stanton said she was clearly over-qualified, but bosses “wanted to see a local degree, and they never tell you. To them, my M.B.A. is not worth anything.”

Aside from her foreign degrees, Stanton said, she was initially stymied by her accent, and by cultural differences between Israel and here.

For example, she said, foreign applicants are usually serious and humble, never smiling in job interviews and always loath to speak well of themselves.

“My friends who are foreigners find it really hard to sell themselves,” Stanton said. “In our countries, your references tell the interviewers that you’re good, you’re a specialist. You don’t say it yourself.”

Pumphrey agreed. “My colleague from the Netherlands told me that if she walked into an interview smiling like an American will do, the interviewer would think she was drunk or flirting.”

Eventually, Stanton found a job as an accountant with Community College of Philadelphia. “I was very lucky,” she said. “I’m over-qualified, but I understand it’s a start.”

Ultimately, American employers are risk-averse, which works against immigrants, said Stanton’s friend Pierre-Olivier Lugez, 37, from France.

A lawyer with master’s degrees in European business and international law, Lugez isn’t permitted to practice law here, just as foreign doctors cannot practice without further study in American institutions, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“American employers feel comfortable with people from schools they know, and because they don’t know what to expect, they aren’t prepared to take a risk on a foreign degree,” he said. “And they say, ‘That guy pleaded to a European court. I don’t know what that is.'”

Lugez, who came here last year and has a green card, landed a job with the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, helping to attract international businesses to the city.

It isn’t like holding forth in a Paris courtroom, but Lugez, who wanted to move to the U.S. to be with his American husband, said he has accepted the fact that he won’t practice law here.

Immigrants learn, Lugez said, that the privilege of coming to America often exacts a cost.

“Everyone coming here from a foreign country goes through this,” he said. “One has to take a step backward, in one way or another.”