High-Skilled Immigrants and the Massachusetts Workforce

Massachusetts has one of the most highly-skilled foreign born workforces in the U.S., with one in three immigrants (34%) coming with a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree earned abroad. Once they arrive here, however, as elsewhere in the country, these immigrants confront many obstacles to putting their degrees and skills to work, including language barriers, unfamiliarity with U.S. work culture, and the complexity and expense of recertifying in their professions.

Between 2009 and 2011, some 46,000 immigrants in Massachusetts—or 20% of the immigrant college-educated population—were either unemployed or “mal-employed” (i.e., working in low-skilled and lower wage jobs that did not use their education and skills). For those who earned their degrees outside the U.S. the situation is likely to be even worse: nationally, 36% of immigrants who earned their degree abroad are mal-employed; for those with college degrees from Africa or Latin America the rate grows to 46%.

This skill underutilization impacts not just these immigrants and their families but the state as a whole, which loses the benefits of their training and skill–often in high demand healthcare and technical professions–as well as the cultural awareness and global perspective they bring to an increasingly diverse society and economy.

NAII’s workforce development project focuses on addressing the integration barriers facing immigrant professionals in Massachusetts and promoting their ability to re-enter their original professions or find new pathways that take advantage of their education and experience. The Institute draws on the expertise of the NAII Advisory Board as well as other experts in workforce development to arrive at strategies for building structures and programs to ease professional integration and advancing policy recommendations for safely and effectively streamlining processes such as credentialing, professional training, and language acquisition.

The Institute advances these goals through work in the following areas:

Policy Recommendations and Advocacy

Drawing on its research, program development, and stakeholder partnerships, the Institute works to develop and advocate for changes both in state policy and in professional licensing and certification requirements that will open up occupational pathways and provide financial and other supports for qualified high-skilled immigrants in the Commonwealth. From May 2014 to September 2015 the Institute coordinated a statewide Task Force on Immigrant Healthcare Professionals–called for by Governor Patrick and convened by the Governor’s Advisory Council on Refugees and Immigrants–to provide policy and program recommendations to advance the career opportunities and contributions of foreign-trained health professionals in the Commonwealth. The Task Force’s report and recommendations were released in December 2015.

The Institute’s research and ongoing advocacy will also highlight the contributions of immigrants at all levels of the state labor force, and the role of immigrant workers in helping the Commonwealth meet its current and future workforce needs and remain competitive in rapidly changing economic environment. These issues are addressed in a recent Institute white paper, Getting to Work: Boosting Massachusetts’ Workforce Competitiveness via Immigrants, Education and Training.

Improved Access to ESOL Instruction

High level English language proficiency is essential for the ability of immigrants trained abroad to obtain employment that fully uses their skills. Enhancing ESOL access, including to classes targeted at particular industry sectors, is therefore key to any effort to combat the skill underutilization of immigrant professionals. Drawing on the expertise of stakeholders–including ESOL providers and funders, employers, labor unions, educational institutions and professional associations, and the English Works Campaign in which MIRA is a partner–the Institute works to promote and expand successful models of ESOL instruction, including contextualized and vocationally oriented classes focused on the needs of immigrant professionals trained abroad.

To learn more about free English classes in your city or town, consult MIRA’s ESOL Resource page.

Labor Market Research on Immigrants in Massachusetts

The Institute has recently published a study on Getting to Work: Boosting Massachusetts’ Workforce Competitiveness via Immigrants, Education and Training. At any given moment, there are over 100,000 job openings in Massachusetts, especially in persistent fields such as nursing, technology and human services. At the same time, unemployment rates are still at high levels. With promising practices across the state and in various sectors and skill-levels, Massachusetts is poised to meet the challenges of training and matching unemployed and recently-arrived immigrants to critical vacancies in the short-term. Immigrants, both skilled and less-skilled, are associated with job creation for native-born in aggregate, according to national trends.

Being among the top states with high levels of foreign-born residents, policymakers, businesses and educators in Massachusetts will have to maintain its competitiveness by integrating all human capital, especially in the absence of federal immigration reform. Moreover, recalibrating the state’s educational, non-profit and private institutions to leverage high-growth industries such as technology, healthcare and non-profits could boost hiring and investment in workforce development in the medium- to long-term.