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Employment barriers for highly skilled immigrants lead to ‘brain waste’ in Maine

When Celia Mantovani moved to Maine from Brazil six years ago, she came with more than two decades of experience as a psychiatrist working in hospitals and universities.

“I was at the top of the game in my career there,” Mantovani said.

But since her job at the University of New England ended in 2018, Mantovani has been adrift, fighting against a system that seems intent on preventing her from practicing medicine because she does not have a U.S. education or credentials. Becoming a doctor in Maine would require starting at the bottom, with years of residency and exams, more than two decades after earning her medical degree and Ph.D.

After two years of fruitless job searches, Mantovani got a contract position investigating COVID-19 outbreaks for Maine’s public health authority. She’s still not sure what happens when the job ends, but is considering certification as a therapist.

“I really don’t understand why a country that needs skilled physicians doesn’t open a different path for people who are legally here,” Mantovani said. “We are not in competition with American doctors, but we could make a difference in so many places.”

Hundreds of immigrants have moved to Maine in recent years, including highly trained, well-educated professionals with vital skills employers in the state desperately want.

But even those highly skilled immigrants have been sidelined by inadequate English language training opportunities and a bewildering patchwork of education, certification and licensing requirements that make restarting their careers an expensive, exhausting process.

By one estimate, more than 2,000 college-educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed in the state. Workforce development leaders refer to the problem as “brain waste.”

“Right now, people most of the time have to start at zero, which is discouraging, which is expensive, so a lot of people don’t do it,” said Julia Trujillo, director of Portland’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

Immigrants in Maine tend to be more highly educated than the U.S.-born population, according to New American Economy, a pro-economic-growth research organization. About 22 percent of the nearly 50,000 immigrants living in Maine hold bachelor’s degrees, compared with 20 percent of the U.S.-born population, and more than 18 percent of the foreign-born population hold a graduate degree, compared with 12 percent of the U.S.-born population, the group estimates.

Those are the sort of skilled workers Maine employers scramble to recruit. Gov. Janet Mills’ 10-year economic strategy calls for adding 75,000 new workers to the state and highlights the contribution immigrants would make with more effective licensing and English language programs.

Language proficiency is the earliest, and hardest, stumbling block for many recent arrivals, Trujillo said. Basic English classes are crucial but don’t cover the kind of technical language professionals need. It’s hard to fit in language classes when people are trying to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, Trujillo said.

“Most of the time they are isolated from practicing English language or learning; they are put in positions where they do not have to practice their English, and it corners them even further,” Trujillo said. “Once they are in these survival jobs over years, their dreams to achieve their professional aspirations disappear.”

The absence of a professional network that can offer career advice is another barrier. Three years ago, the city of Portland started Portland Professional Connections, modeled after a Canadian program that pairs immigrants with local professionals in their field to start building professional networks. Since then, Portland’s program has helped at least 100 participants, Trujillo said.

“For the Portland-based professionals, there are a lot of employers trying to diversify, and it is a much more meaningful way to get to know the talent that exists in Portland that people don’t know about,” she said.

For Fernando Saavedra, making professional connections has helped, but he still hasn’t advanced his career since moving to Maine from Chile in 2013.

Saavedra, 47, worked as an architect and project manager for 10 years in Santiago, a city of 7 million people. Since moving to the Portland area with his daughter and American wife, he’s made his living as a painting contractor.

“I have applied to various jobs related to architecture here in Portland, but have not had a positive response,” he said.

The language barrier is Saavedra’s primary challenge, but he said the small and competitive job market makes it hard to find positions in his field.

There are many sources of assistance in Maine for foreign-born professionals, but Saavedra said private employers don’t seem to want to hire foreigners. Goodwill Workforce Solutions offered to fund a monthlong internship at any company for him, he said. Saavedra presented the opportunity to four local firms – he never heard back from any of them.

“Although there are a number of local entities that work to help you get a job in your profession as a foreigner, in my opinion these initiatives do not find a place in firms or companies because they have no incentive to do so,” Saavedra said.

Learning a new language and starting fresh relationships is just the beginning for many foreign-trained and educated professionals. Obtaining and translating proof of education from their home countries can be time-consuming and expensive, and those qualifications may go unrecognized in the United States. Read from source….