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Brain waste: College-educated adult immigrants struggle to work in their fields in the U.S.

A picture of a sign that says "Now hiring managers and drivers. Apply online at jobs.pizzahut.com".
Marta Lavandier
A sign posted at a Pizza Hut seeks new employees Tuesday, February 28, 2023, in North Miami. Brain waste describes when immigrants with advanced degrees have to work low-skill jobs due to individual and institutional obstacles.

Claudia Londoño recalls her first job in the United States in 2021. She was taught how to fold and manage a rack full of clothes. At that moment, memories of the years she spent earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees flooded her mind. Still, there she was, working in a retail store.

Londoño is a 48-year-old Colombian who arrived in the U.S. in 2021, seeking better opportunities and a brighter future for her son. She has a bachelor’s in speech and language pathology and a master’s in marketing. In Colombia, she practiced speech and language pathology for five years and then spent ten years as a key account manager at Novartis, a pharmaceutical company.

“I knew it was going to be hard for me because of the language barrier,” said Londoño. “But I felt that everything I studied and worked in Colombia wasn’t worth it here.”

Many immigrants in the U.S. struggle with the same issue.

Londoño’s experience mirrors those of the first major wave of Cuban exiles to South Florida after 1959. Miami may be known as the melting pot for immigrants escaping tyranny and seeking freedom, but many of them are not able to work in their fields and often end up working in low-wage jobs to meet their expenses because it is too costly to validate their careers here.

“Many of these pioneers left Cuba with nothing and had to begin anew,’’ according to the PBSdocumentary, Cuban Exiles in America. “Sugar mill owners became gas station attendants; professional women took jobs as maids.”

According to a report from the Migration Policy Institute, “In 2022, 35 percent of all 40.8 million immigrant adults ages 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

However, many work in low-skill jobs. There are several reasons, said Jeanne Batalova, a Migration Policy Institute senior analyst. She sorts them into two categories: individual situations, such as lack of English proficiency, legal status, the place where they obtained their degree, and Institutional barriers regarding licenses and regulations.

The institute calls this brain waste, Batalova said.

“When the country of origin loses these skilled individuals is known as brain drain, but when a country receives immigrants and doesn’t use them to their maximum capacity, we refer to that as the country is wasting human capital.”

A photo of a group of five people smiling at the camera. Two are wearing suits, one wearing a dress, and two are wearing shirts with pants.
Claudia Londoño
FIU Caplin News
Claudia Londoño worked at Novartis in Colombia as a key account manager before coming to the U.S. Claudia is the second person from left to right.Claudia Londoño worked at Novartis in Colombia as a key account manager before coming to the U.S. Claudia is the second person from left to right.

Londoño’s limited English proficiency has been a barrier to pursuing her desired career in Miami. Despite taking English classes, she still has to work a full-time job to pay her bills, limiting her time for studying.

“It’s hard for me to practice my English because, outside the classroom, nobody speaks in English because we’re in Miami,” says Londoño

One issue leads to another. For example, in order to validate her career in the United States, she has to learn English, but even after that, a few barriers stand in her way. Batalova said immigrants are disadvantaged when seeking jobs in their field because local employers prefer local education.

Even with experience, “what you did back in your home country is not worth it, especially when it’s related to the health sector,” she said.

For Londoño to validate her career, she will first undergo a credential evaluation, which will cost between $100 and $500, depending on the type of documents required.

Then she will have to get a Florida speech pathology license. According to the Florida Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, candidates must have a master’s degree or have completed the academic requirements of a doctoral program in speech-language pathology; on average, a master of science in Speech-Language Pathology costs around $48,345. Moreover, applicants need 300 supervised hours of experience, with at least 200 hours in speech-language pathology and nine months of professional employment experience.

Additionally, applicants must provide proof of passing an exam within the last three years. The required exam costs at least $280.

Londoño is not alone.

“We estimated that at least 2 million immigrants are unemployed or working in low-skilled jobs,” said Batalova. “An additional 2 million people who are college-educated are working in what we call middle-skill jobs that require some level of a college degree but not a university-level degree.”

A man wearing a gray suit smiles at the camera. He is standing in an office.
Alexis Santamaria
FIU Caplin News
Alexis Santamaria moved to Colombia early in his life and grew up in the same neighborhood where Pablo Escobar was. Even though he was a very successful medical toxicologist and, later in his life, a pharmaceutical marketer. He is currently studying Business Intelligence Analytics at Miami Dade College.

Alexis Santamaria, 47, was born in Miami but moved to Colombia with his parents when he was 8 and lived there until 2021. Even though he is a U.S. citizen, because he did all his higher education in Colombia, he has issues working in his field in Miami.

Santamaria is a medical toxicologist with a master’s in pharmaceutical marketing. He was very successful in Colombia, but since he landed, he has struggled.

“I have applied to 100 positions in the pharmaceutical industry, but they told me that I don’t have experience in the United States,” said Santamaria. “ It doesn’t matter if they are the same medications I was handling in Colombia; they don’t care about my experience.”

“It’s kind of funny because they see me as a migrant in my own country,” says Santamaria

He currently works as a telephone health insurance agent.

“In health care, engineering, and education sectors, employers are looking for qualified workers, and the two ships pass each other at night,” said Batalova. ”Often employers require US experience, but to get US experience, someone has to hire them first.”

There is a societal cost to the problem as well, Batalova said.

“Five years ago, underemployment of college-educated immigrants cost about $10 million in state and federal taxes; moreover, states with larger immigrant populations suffer this often.”

The United States continues to receive immigrants between 2020 and 2022; 48% of new immigrants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and many of them continue facing the brain waste issue.

“When you come to the US, you arrive full of dreams and goals to achieve. However, the reality is that you often end up working in a job outside your field,” said Londoño.

The story was originally published by Caplin News, a publication of FIU's Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media, as part of an editorial content partnership with the WLRN newsroom.

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