Sunday, November 1, 2015
By: Ibrahim Hirsi, MinnPost
Earlier this month, Zewdu Negash sat in the lobby of a Minneapolis homeless shelter with a pile of credentials detailing a two-decade experience as a legal professional in Ethiopia.
The rГ©sumГ©s showed that Negash has indeed been a well-established legal expert: a prosecutor for the Ethiopian government, an attorney with several private institutions, a judge in Addis Ababa and a 1994 graduate of the Kiev State University in Ukraine, where he earned an international public law degree.
When Negash moved to Minnesota in February, however, he could only secure a food-packing job at LSG Sky Chefs, earning $9 an hour to sustain his family, which has been living in the Sharing and Caring Hands homeless shelter in north Minneapolis.
вЂњI have to work for my family,вЂќ he said softly, as his 6-month-old twin sons and 3-year-old daughter tightly clung to him. вЂњI am supposed to leave this shelter in a few months and find my own place.вЂќ
For more than seven months now, Negash, 45, has been calling and sending emails to local governmental and nonprofit legal organizations seeking employment вЂ” to no avail.
Negash is hardly alone in his struggle to find employment in his chosen profession. More than 1.3 million U.S. immigrants who attained higher degrees from universities in their native countries are unemployed or underemployed, often working as cab drivers, cleaners or security guards, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington D.C.
The report also found that the recovery of such immigrantsвЂ™ occupational status depends on a host of factors, but that “overall, college-educated immigrants from Africa and Latin America have less success in finding skilled jobs in the United States than do immigrants from Asia and Europe,вЂќ the study noted. вЂњHighly skilled immigrants with U.S. college degrees or U.S. work experience prior to permanent settlement fared far better than their peers with foreign-obtained degrees or no U.S. work experience.вЂќ
In Minnesota, according to census data, a higher percentage of foreign-born Minnesotans (15 percent) have attained a masterвЂ™s or professional degree than non-immigrants (10 percent). Yet Bruce Corrie, an economics professor at Concordia University in St. Paul, said he knows many highly educated immigrants who are unable to make use of their credentials in the Twin Cities. Some of them eventually go back to school to relearn or polish their skills. But many others are forced to reinvent themselves, he said, and are now pursuing different professions.
In fact, Nasser Mussa, a program specialist at the Cedar Riverside Adult Education Collaborative, said his organization receives at least 50 college-educated immigrants and refugees each month. вЂњWeвЂ™re talking about people who managed giant corporations in their countries, engineers, math teachers,вЂќ Mussa said of the clients, many of them from Afghanistan, Somalia and Ethiopia.
For some, the biggest hurdle isnвЂ™t a mystery: the ability to speak English proficiently. Marisa Hernandez, a business training program coordinator at the Minneapolis-basedLatino Economic Development Center, often works with former teachers and nurses from Central America who are now stuck in low-paying jobs. вЂњThe issue for these immigrants is usually language,вЂќ Hernandez explained. вЂњMany are highly skilled, but they donвЂ™t speak English.вЂќ
But other issues are less obvious, says Roseline Shelstad, a program coordinator at the Bloomington-based African Workforce & Entrepreneurial Development (AWED), which often works with immigrants whose degrees and credentials arenвЂ™t often recognized in the United States.
вЂњWe give them different career training,вЂќ said Liberian-born Shelstad, who has lived in Minnesota for more than 20 years. вЂњBut having soft skills is usually the biggest issue for the new immigrants.вЂќ
вЂњItвЂ™s a cultural thing,вЂќ she added. вЂњItвЂ™s just the way people were brought up. A lot of us were brought up not to look people in the eye when talking to them. But in the American work setting, youвЂ™re not qualified if you donвЂ™t show confidence, which is partly looking people in the eye in communications.вЂќ
Negash is among those now enrolled in AWEDвЂ™s 18-month training program, which partners with local companies to provide job seekers the tools they need to succeed in the work force, and he hopes to eventually continue in the legal profession.
вЂњIвЂ™m hoping to find somebody who could help me navigate the educational system,вЂќ he said. вЂњInformation is very important. All I have been trying to do these months was to find people.вЂќ