Lots of ‘brain waste’ among highly educated immigrants

Many highly educated immigrants coming to the U.S. without a job lined up have been unable to find work at their level of education, leading to considerable “brain waste,” Purdue University researchers have found.

Agricultural economics professors Brigitte Waldorf and Raymond Florax were on a team of researchers who analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and its American Community Survey to determine the prevalence and persistence of job-education mismatch among male immigrants in the U.S. from 1980 to 2009.

“Overeducation is more of a reality for people who come to the United States to be with family,” said Waldorf, co-author of the research. “They have not been recruited by a specific employer, and they often do not find a job that matches their education.”

The researchers found that, throughout the period, the level of education of nearly half of immigrants was above the education requirements for their job, compared with one fourth of men born and living in the U.S. The prevalence of such “brain waste” exceeded 40 percent for immigrants with a bachelor’s degree, 50 percent for those with a doctoral or professional degree and 75 percent for those with a master’s degree. The overeducation prevalence for U.S. natives was 10-20 percentage points lower. Over time, immigrants find suitable jobs, but not to the extent of U.S. natives.

Waldorf noted that prevailing thinking assumes that highly educated immigrants are a significant gain for the U.S. economy and society. But the researchers said that “given the abundance of foreign and domestic talent in the United States, with much of it being poorly matched in the labor market, a policy shift toward attracting even more global talent may actually be backfiring.”

One possible consequence of large numbers of highly educated immigrants is that some Americans might look for opportunities abroad to find a job that better matches their education. Similarly, immigrants who are highly skilled and highly educated may become more likely to return to their home country or move to a third country because they are unable to get a suitable job in the U.S., at least initially.

“In anticipation of being overeducated in the United States, migrants from other countries may also simply not choose the United States in the first place,” the researchers said.

The study also identified circumstances influencing the risk of immigrants being overeducated for the jobs they got. One key finding was that assimilation – integrating into U.S. society such as by learning the English language – helped highly educated immigrants find a job that adequately matched their education level. Conversely, lack of proficiency in English “was the most powerful predictor” of immigrants unable to get a suitable job, the researchers concluded.

Policymakers should put greater emphasis on measures that foster the assimilation and integration of newcomers when considering a shift toward increasing immigration to attract specific skills, the researchers said. Possible strategies include English language classes and extending work permits to family members.

The study, “Attracting Global Talent and Then What? Overeducated Immigrants in the United States,” was published in the Journal of Regional Science. Other researchers on the team were from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division and the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

Women were not included in the study because women often had complex labor market careers, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, that included stints of part-time employment or temporarily dropping out of the labor force from having children.

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