‘Structural Underemployment’ Among Immigrant Professionals

Biomedical engineer Muhammed Rufai Batmanoglu, with a Ph.D. from Turkey, has been driving for Uber and Lyft for the last two years. (Photo by Adi Talwar via City Limits)

Professionals account for a large share of immigrants to the U.S., but integrating them into the workforce in jobs that truly use their knowledge is proving difficult. Tiziana Rinaldi writes in City Limits about the “brain waste” that is occurring as immigrants with Ph.D.s and M.D.s are finding it hard to transfer their skills in the U.S.

Overall the U.S. has its highest proportion of foreign-born population — 13.7 percent — since 1910. About 45 percent of those who have arrived since 2010 have college degrees or higher, the Brookings [Institution] found in its analysis of Census data. According to the Institution, more Asians than Latin Americans are also immigrating to the U.S. — an influx led by China, India and the Philippines. The change is bringing a higher proportion of educated arrivals.

But the U.S. has a problem of structural underemployment among skilled newcomers, know as “immigrant brain waste.” The U.S. system is designed “to admit college-educated immigrants, but not to integrate them into the workforce after they come here,” says Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, and national expert on the subject.

Rinaldi writes about one immigrant, biomedical engineer Muhammed Rufai Batmanoglu, who has a Ph.D. and once researched epilepsy in infants in Turkey and now drives for Lyft and Uber. Then there’s Haldun Çetinkanat, 50, an orthopedic surgeon from Denizli in southwest Turkey who specializes in hand and wrist reconstruction, who arrived here in 2018 and so far has only found temporary work in a pizza parlor in Midtown Manhattan.

He rolled dough and baked pizzas for a couple of months until the owner replaced him with an experienced chef. He won’t return to Turkey; he and his family fled the country after a failed coup in 2016 provoked political turmoil that is causing a diaspora.

Health professionals face a particularly challenging road to recertification. “The process for foreign-trained MDs is lengthy, time-consuming and expensive,” says Tania Ramirez, program manager at the Welcome Back Center at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, which serves as many as 600 immigrants with a healthcare background a year.

Medical relicensing can take two to eight years and includes requirements to pass three medical-licensing exams, to be certified by the Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates and to secure a medical residency program, which is difficult even for U.S.-born applicants, says Ramirez.

Go to City Limits to read how some state legislatures are trying to lower licensing hurdles for immigrants with professional degrees, especially in light of projected shortages of doctors and other professionals.

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