doctor_cabbie.jpgIt’s time to change the immigration conversation

Conventional wisdom would dictate that once an issue becomes the premise for a Hollywood film, the problem will soon find itself moving toward legistlative resolution. So maybe the only reason why Dr. Cabbie didn’t become the Erin Brockovich of the education equivalency conundrum is that it was not made in Hollywood, nor set in the U.S., but made in Canada and set in Toronto.

Regardless of geography or governance, every country across the globe faces tough foreign policy decisions, with leaders often in the unenviable position of having to make difficult and contentious calls about which areas of the world matter most to them. Despite the outcome, no decision pleases everyone. The process is a delicate act of balancing national interests with outward intervention, and determining which regions compromise or complement those interests. Basically, it’s more to do with prevailing priorities than lofty humanitarian ideals. This is why the United States, for instance, focuses intensely on the threat posed by the terror group ISIS in Iraq and Syria instead of dispatching peacekeeping forces to control the sectarian violence that’s been ravaging the Central African Republic for some time now.

Beyond the main headlines, many people probably don’t know just how many wars or armed conflicts are occurring. This year, battles are still being fought in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ukraine, South Sudan, Israel, Somalia, Yemen, India, Uganda, Libya, Egypt, and Turkey, to name a few. How does this global unrest affect employment, you may ask? It spurs immigration. It leads people to flee their homelands and seek refuge in less tumultuous countries. European Union nations, because of their proximity to many of the world’s current conflicts, are encountering a significant influx of refugees. Although immigration remains a vivid political talking point in the United States, lawmakers have set their sights primarily on the country’s southern borders.

When immigration reaches the point at which it becomes an issue, concerns follow. And with them come the arguments and debates from all levels of government — not all these conversations being productive. Any slight upsetting of the status quo can foster feelings of fear, with people quick to attach labels like “crisis” or “taking jobs away” to the situation. Such has been the case with immigration. However, as we wrote in a recent article, giving into the sense of existential dread may be preventing us from seizing tremendous opportunities that benefit our economies and the incoming wave of skilled talent who are longing to contribute. And one of the best ways we can achieve these mutual goals is to champion education equivalency.

The motivators behind immigration and the rewards ahead
As Luk N. Van Wassenhove and Othman Boufaied discuss in the Harvard Business Review, Europe is poised to capitalize on the skills of refugees and build a better workforce through improved assessment and qualification processes. The authors note the importance of perception — of recognizing that those individuals escaping violence or oppression aren’t motivated by the promise of handouts from their host countries: “They want to work in order to create some semblance of a normal life for their families. They are keen to contribute to the countries that have taken them in, for which they are often profoundly grateful.”

The value of immigrant talent goes well beyond gratitude and commitment. In many cases, these new citizens are highly trained and in command of desperately needed skills. They can play a vital role in restoring and strengthening the hobbled economies that suffered through a worldwide financial crisis over the past six years. In Europe as in the United States, there exist key sectors where a deficit of qualified job seekers has become a chronic problem. Unfavorable demographics, aging Boomers and lower birth rates are putting a greater strain on social systems than the presence of immigrants.

“In short,” Van Wassenhove and Boufaied assert, “Europe needs young, skilled workers who can pay taxes and contribute to social security today.” This is precisely why German Chancellor Angela Merkel relaxed the Dublin rules to accommodate refugees from Syria. Germany has a long history of positive gains from welcoming outsiders. In 2012, the 6.6 million people living in Germany with foreign passports paid $4,127 more in taxes and social security than they accepted in state-sponsored benefits. Immigrant talent generated a surplus of €22 billion that same year. And as a generation of German workers retire, the country believes 1.5 million skilled immigrants can stabilize the pension system.

Here in the States, we’re witnessing similar trends. As our older talent begin to phase out of the labor force, younger foreign workers with crucial skills will likely help in offsetting the contributions of the Boomers as a fresh source of tax revenues, consumerism, and productivity. And like Germany, U.S. data already demonstrate this potential.

  • Immigrants open businesses twice as often as native-born Americans.
  • They are verifiably more likely to work instead of collecting unemployment or other public assistance.
  • They are not stealing jobs from Americans, according to 27 separate studies performed in 2014.

The real challenge is that Europe and the United States have yet to establish efficient processes for integrating well-qualified immigrants into the workforce. And without a path to meaningful employment opportunities, refugees can’t contribute, making them legitimate burdens of the state. By drawing on the proven approaches already thriving in nations such as Britain and Germany, we can refine the methods we use to assess the qualifications and experience of foreign talent.

The education equivalency obstacle: why skilled talent are working menial jobs
We’ve already heard the stories about educated immigrants driving cabs, toiling away as dishwashers or cleaning out storm gutters. It’s become an overused trope in TV comedies. You know the setup, the one where the janitor reveals he was brain surgeon in his country of origin, or the one where you discover the nanny was a former prime minister back home. Sadly, there’s probably more truth than fiction to the joke. And that’s nothing to laugh about.

Less than half of immigrants with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs. In 2011, for example, more than 1.6 million college-educated immigrants were working unskilled jobs as dishwashers, security guards or cabbies. “This situation represents a waste of human capital affecting nearly 23 percent of skilled immigrants,” the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) stated. In our last post on immigration, we referenced several examples of immigrants with multiple degrees in key STEM disciplines who found themselves forced to take menial positions instead of being allowed to put their knowledge to good use.

In their article, Van Wassenhove and Boufaied offer the case of an immigrant who landed in France with a Master’s degree in geophysics engineering. Like most foreign talent, however, his academic achievements weren’t officially recognized. He had to enroll in a new two-year master program to gain the credentials he already had — at tremendous cost and effort.

Education equivalency
There is a solution. And as the Harvard Business Review team points out, it already exists: “All EU and EEA states have a designated National Academic Recognition Information Centre (NARIC), which provides a way to compare academic qualifications. European universities are familiar with this service (which is not supported by governments) but most business employers have not heard of the organization and rely on accreditations from local-country professional bodies. Boosting the profile of this service and investing in its ability to provide sound judgments of qualification equivalence would be a good way to speed up the recognition of foreign qualifications.”

Even though the majority of businesses are unfamiliar with the program, a handful of employers have started making inroads: “A Refugee Council program funded by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) supports refugee doctors to re-qualify to UK standards and secure employment appropriate to their professional qualifications.”

The good news is that the same types of organizations also operate in America. Although no single authority exist in the United States for the recognition of foreign degrees and other qualifications, the U.S. Department of Education endorses credential evaluation services — independent organizations that analyze non-U.S. qualifications and issue recommendations “as to how a particular qualification compares to a similar qualification or set of qualifications in the U.S. education system, labor market or the professions.” In fact, there are many accredited organizations already supported by the NACES:

  • A2Z Evaluations, LLC
  • Academic Evaluation Services, Inc.
  • Center for Applied Research, Evaluations, & Education, Inc.
  • e-ValReports
  • Educational Credential Evaluators, Inc.
  • Educational Perspectives, nfp.
  • Educational Records Evaluation Service, Inc.
  • Evaluation Service, Inc.
  • Foreign Academic Credential Service, Inc.
  • Foundation for International Services, Inc.
  • Global Credential Evaluators, Inc.
  • Global Services Associates, Inc.
  • International Academic Credential Evaluators, Inc.
  • International Consultants of Delaware, Inc.
  • International Education Research Foundation, Inc.
  • Josef Silny & Associates, Inc. International Education Consultants
  • SpanTran: The Evaluation Company
  • Transcript Research
  • World Education Services, Inc.

A small investment with a big return
Business around the world have become adept at designing lean processes and optimizing operations in order to compete in the fluctuations of an increasingly global marketplace. They have implemented processes that embrace elasticity, rapidity, visibility, connectivity and alignment. Finding a way to integrate skilled and educated immigrant talent into the workforce will require the same innovative and streamlined efforts, yet the results could deliver substantial economic rewards.

Most refugees face an uphill battle in getting their host countries to accept their domestic qualifications, and these individuals don’t often have the capital to re-qualify. They instead take unskilled jobs in order to pay the bills and put food on their tables. Credential evaluations vary in cost depending on the complexity of the analysis and the amount of documentation available. The workers themselves generally incur the costs, though employers are occasionally willing to foot the bill.

The reality is that the talent we need, with the skills we want, are out there. Yet the best people can’t succeed in broken systems. With a relatively small investment in qualification equivalence, staffing professionals and employers could have the means to bring the highest caliber and most diverse talent home.