Maryland Fights 'Brain Waste' With Immigrant Integration Programs


WASHINGTON (Oct. 23, 2008)—Maryland is one of the few states taking measures to fight the "brain waste" resulting from the more than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants unemployed or working unskilled jobs, according to a Migration Policy Institute report released Wednesday.

"What we have here may be in some ways the worst of all policy worlds," said Michael Fix, institute senior vice president and report co-author. "What we have is brain waste in the receiving country, the United States, and brain drain in the sending country."

But that educated work force is not wasted in Maryland, said Tom Perez, secretary of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

"At a national level, immigrants tend to be less educated than their native-born colleagues," he said. "In Maryland, the opposite is true—43 percent of immigrants working in Maryland have a college degree or above, compared with 36 percent of their native-born colleagues."

Maryland is better off than most states because it has a worker shortage in several sectors, including health care, construction and hospitality, Perez said.

The state will even receive 60,000 more jobs by 2015 as the No. 1 beneficiary of the Base Realignment and Closure process, which consolidates the nation's military installations.

"I believe that information is power, and Maryland is in an enviable position," Perez said. "We have this economic downturn that is obviously the talk of the nation. In Maryland, we're well positioned to weather the storm better than most states because we have a very robust economy even in economic downturn."

Despite recent state budget cuts, Maryland is funding a program to move foreign-born, foreign-trained health care professionals to jobs in their field.

The program started by the Latino Health Initiative in Montgomery County, which made a "modest investment," Perez said, of about $5,000 per student to train 25 custodians, cab drivers, hotel workers, etc., to use the education they received in their home countries in a U.S. job.

"When you are demand-driven and supply-savvy, and when you've broken down and really drilled down on what your supply side is, you will learn that right in your back yard there are remarkably talented people who are grossly underutilizing their talents," Perez said.

Eleven of the nurses in the program work at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.

The nurses provide a tremendous benefit to the hospital, said Wendy Friar, vice president of community health.

"These nurses are lovely," she said. "They're very well-trained, and they bring in a bicultural element that's a must. ... It's not about language, but it's about understanding different cultures, belief systems and customs, and these nurses bring it to the bedside and also teach other staff as well."

Eight of the nurses have already passed their licensing exam, which gives them the same degree as a U.S. registered nurse, Friar said. The other three are still working with the program to pass the exam.

"There is no doubt in our mind they will all pass," Friar said. "It depends on their level of English proficiency, their reading comprehension, things like that, and that takes time."

Other immigrant assistance efforts, such as English learning programs, are feeling the effects of the budget deficit.

The state passed a bill last year to merge the delivery of adult education and work-force development under the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Perez said 60 percent of these services are for English language learners.

"I would love to be able to invest more dollars for adult education," he said. "We haven't been able to close the waiting lists. We've made a pretty good dent, but there's still Marylanders who want to learn English so that they can get a better job."

But budget woes won't stop Maryland's efforts to help its immigrant population, Perez said.

"Our vision is that immigrants are our lifeblood, they have always been our lifeblood, and they will always be our lifeblood," he said, "and they enrich our communities in so many ways, shapes and forms."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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