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Removing Employment Barriers for Immigrant Workers

A man in an apron is using a tablet in a warehouse.

​Immigrants with permanent residence status can face difficulties achieving full employment in the U.S., often due to employers not trusting foreign degree programs. They also struggle to be accepted into licensing programs that are required for certain jobs. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, tens of thousands of internationally trained health care professionals are unable to work to their full potential because their training abroad is not recognized in the U.S. 

Jina Krause-Vilmar is president and CEO of Upwardly Global, an organization focused on integrating Jina Krause-Vilmar immigrant and refugee professionals into the U.S. workforce through skill-building and networking programs. Krause-Vilmar discussed the issue with SHRM Online, as well as a recent proposal to address the barriers and what employers can do to be more inclusive of the millions of work-authorized, college-educated foreign workers in the United States.

SHRM Online: What are some of the most prevalent factors that limit U.S. employment opportunities for immigrants with international training and education?

Krause-Vilmar: There are two million college-educated, work-authorized immigrants and refugees in our country with expertise in critical industries, but systemic barriers prevent them from being able to put their experience and expertise to work in the U.S.

For professionals in highly regulated industries, like health care, the process of getting a professional license is an immediate and difficult hurdle. Many licensing processes do not recognize experience or credentials earned abroad, and therefore the pathway to rebuild one's career requires repeating years of education and training. The result is an expensive, time-consuming process that keeps many out of their professional fields.

The barriers within other industries are just as challenging. Employers may not recognize the value of degrees from unfamiliar universities or work experience in unknown companies. Newcomers also largely lack professional networks in the U.S. A majority of Americans get their jobs through someone they know, so it is difficult for newcomers to break through. Conscious and unconscious biases around race, religion, language and nationality also come into play for immigrants.

SHRM Online: How will the recently introduced Improving Opportunities for New Americans Act of 2020 address these issues?

Krause-Vilmar: The barriers that keep immigrant and refugee professionals from fully contributing their skills are complex, systemic and intersectional. There is no singular silver bullet to addressing them. Yet the Improving Opportunities for New Americans Act gives us an opportunity to examine these hurdles at the federal level and to better understand how to tackle them.

The legislation would direct the Department of Labor to coordinate a federal study on the issue, examining issues like language barriers and bias, the recognition of international degrees and credentials, the accessibility of relicensing processes, and the availability of professional networks and support for newcomers. This is an important opportunity to build comprehensive solutions at the federal level and to catalyze state and local actors to embrace this talent pool as well. Bipartisan support for the bill reflects a growing consensus for the need to change the status quo. We need these skills in our workforce, and this bill is an important step forward in ensuring the integration of this talent pool.

SHRM Online: What can employers do to be more inclusive of these individuals and allow them to fully contribute their skills?

Krause-Vilmar: COVID-19 and the accompanying recession have changed the labor market, but there is still demand for qualified candidates in essential industries like technology, engineering, finance and health care. More than ever, these industries must champion diverse talent, including immigrant and refugee professionals. The inherent resilience and problem-solving skills of this talent pool are assets for individual workplaces and essential for our collective economic recovery.

Employers should have honest and reflective conversations about the HR systems and processes that prevent people from getting jobs. Roughly 85 percent of positions are filled through existing personal and professional networks, which means that candidates from underrepresented communities are at a disadvantage. There's urgency to diversifying recruitment pipelines, and companies must intentionally cultivate relationships in immigrant and refugee communities.

Employers must also re-evaluate resumes and the hiring process. Highly qualified immigrants and refugees are often overlooked for roles because of hard-to-pronounce names, unfamiliar credentials, or having periods of displacement or unemployment on their resumes. Scrubbing these details from applications, for example, means that all candidates can be consistently evaluated on core skills and competencies rather than pedigree.

But the work doesn't stop once an employee is hired. Many of our candidates are hired for entry-level positions and benefit from mentorship programs, which can demystify the U.S. office culture. Employers should also make commitments to championing this talent and supporting advancements to mid- and senior-level roles.


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