When Celia Mantovani moved to Maine from Brazil six years ago, she came with more than two decades of experience as a psychiatrist working in hospitals and universities.
“I was at the top of the game in my career there,” Mantovani said.
But since her job at the University of New England ended in 2018, Mantovani has been adrift, fighting against a system that seems intent on preventing her from practicing medicine because she does not have a U.S. education or credentials. Becoming a doctor in Maine would require starting at the bottom, with years of residency and exams, more than two decades after earning her medical degree and Ph.D.
After two years of fruitless job searches, Mantovani got a contract position investigating COVID-19 outbreaks for Maine’s public health authority. She’s still not sure what happens when the job ends, but is considering certification as a therapist.
“I really don’t understand why a country that needs skilled physicians doesn’t open a different path for people who are legally here,” Mantovani said. “We are not in competition with American doctors, but we could make a difference in so many places.”
Hundreds of immigrants have moved to Maine in recent years, including highly trained, well-educated professionals with vital skills employers in the state desperately want.
But even those highly skilled immigrants have been sidelined by inadequate English language training opportunities and a bewildering patchwork of education, certification and licensing requirements that make restarting their careers an expensive, exhausting process.
By one estimate, more than 2,000 college-educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed in the state. Workforce development leaders refer to the problem as “brain waste.”
“Right now, people most of the time have to start at zero, which is discouraging, which is expensive, so a lot of people don’t do it,” said Julia Trujillo, director of Portland’s Office of Economic Opportunity.
Immigrants in Maine tend to be more highly educated than the U.S.-born population, according to New American Economy, a pro-economic-growth research organization. About 22 percent of the nearly 50,000 immigrants living in Maine hold bachelor’s degrees, compared with 20 percent of the U.S.-born population, and more than 18 percent of the foreign-born population hold a graduate degree, compared with 12 percent of the U.S.-born population, the group estimates.
Those are the sort of skilled workers Maine employers scramble to recruit. Gov. Janet Mills’ 10-year economic strategy calls for adding 75,000 new workers to the state and highlights the contribution immigrants would make with more effective licensing and English language programs.
Language proficiency is the earliest, and hardest, stumbling block for many recent arrivals, Trujillo said. Basic English classes are crucial but don’t cover the kind of technical language professionals need. It’s hard to fit in language classes when people are trying to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, Trujillo said.
“Most of the time they are isolated from practicing English language or learning; they are put in positions where they do not have to practice their English, and it corners them even further,” Trujillo said. “Once they are in these survival jobs over years, their dreams to achieve their professional aspirations disappear.”
The absence of a professional network that can offer career advice is another barrier. Three years ago, the city of Portland started Portland Professional Connections, modeled after a Canadian program that pairs immigrants with local professionals in their field to start building professional networks. Since then, Portland’s program has helped at least 100 participants, Trujillo said.
“For the Portland-based professionals, there are a lot of employers trying to diversify, and it is a much more meaningful way to get to know the talent that exists in Portland that people don’t know about,” she said.
For Fernando Saavedra, making professional connections has helped, but he still hasn’t advanced his career since moving to Maine from Chile in 2013.
Saavedra, 47, worked as an architect and project manager for 10 years in Santiago, a city of 7 million people. Since moving to the Portland area with his daughter and American wife, he’s made his living as a painting contractor.
“I have applied to various jobs related to architecture here in Portland, but have not had a positive response,” he said.
The language barrier is Saavedra’s primary challenge, but he said the small and competitive job market makes it hard to find positions in his field.
There are many sources of assistance in Maine for foreign-born professionals, but Saavedra said private employers don’t seem to want to hire foreigners. Goodwill Workforce Solutions offered to fund a monthlong internship at any company for him, he said. Saavedra presented the opportunity to four local firms – he never heard back from any of them.
“Although there are a number of local entities that work to help you get a job in your profession as a foreigner, in my opinion these initiatives do not find a place in firms or companies because they have no incentive to do so,” Saavedra said.
Learning a new language and starting fresh relationships is just the beginning for many foreign-trained and educated professionals. Obtaining and translating proof of education from their home countries can be time-consuming and expensive, and those qualifications may go unrecognized in the United States.
Professional licensing and certification is run by an uncoordinated patchwork of different boards, state agencies and professional bodies with different standards and education requirements, said Sally Sutton, program coordinator at the New Mainers Resource Center at Portland Adult Education. It can be hard for a resident of another state or a military veteran to get their license recognized in Maine, let alone someone from another country.
“It is not really a system – these are all independent entities that make up their own rules, and really make it very challenging for someone who came here as a refugee or an asylum-seeker to access,” Sutton said.
In an October report, the center identified a slew of barriers for foreign medical professionals. There is limited funding for English language education and to obtain and translate college transcripts and take exams. Internships and professional experience are hard to access unless people are enrolled in a college. Just getting information about how to pursue licensing and certification is a challenge.
A lack of financial assistance and federal restrictions on employment prevent many political asylum-seekers – who make up the majority of Maine immigrants in recent years – from pursuing careers they abandoned when they fled their home countries to escape violence or death.
“It puts them at a disadvantage initially. They didn’t come here planning to work here – they had to pull themselves up and move here. They didn’t plan ahead for that,” Sutton said. “I think if policymakers are serious about trying to do something about this, we have to address the income inequalities people face and the challenges there.”
A $70,000 revolving microloan program through the Finance Authority of Maine, or FAME, was set up last year to help pay for education documents or licensing exams but has not been used. Long delays to issue work permits and a yearlong prohibition on asylum-seekers working legally in the U.S. enacted by the Trump administration made lending too risky because there was no guarantee borrowers could pay it back, according to a FAME spokesman.
“I think most people are sympathetic and see there was a waste of talent we should try to do something about, but there are no easy solutions,” Sutton said.
Brain waste is a longstanding national problem. The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, reports that more than 2 million college-educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed in the U.S. That number includes 2,100 people in Maine.
“We see this as a significant economic issue,” said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the institute. Unrealized wages for those workers add up to about $40 billion a year, she said.
“We are not even talking about the economic impact to immigrants and their families,” Batalova said. “We are talking about the loss of state revenue. We are talking about businesses that are not able to find the workers they need. We have a pool of workers who could join and contribute meaningfully, but they are underemployed because there is not enough infrastructure and support to help them in terms of integrating and moving into the labor market.”
Employers have a huge role to play in that process. Immigrants with foreign credentials and experience get passed over for jobs because they don’t have U.S. work experience, but they can’t get that experience because they are passed over for jobs, Batalova said. Unless they actively seek it out, employers miss the unrealized talent in front of them, she added.
“It is understandable that for a company to hire someone when they know nothing about their degrees is a huge risk, which is why they don’t do it,” Batalova said. “Employers are often just not aware of this population; you need to find that critical person in that organization and get them interested.”
MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care system, was one of only two companies last year to testify in favor of a bill that would set up a welcome center in Lewiston to connect immigrants with language and job training. The bill was never voted on because the Legislature adjourned early as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The company said it has made an effort to “grow its own” workforce to help fill more than 1,300 open positions across the system, and candidates include immigrants with higher education degrees. That effort includes a digital language lab with English courses tailored for MaineHealth, and partnerships with the New Mainers Resource Center and other organizations to connect employees with training and education.
“We are so fortunate to have people who are bilingual, multilingual, but English language is the barrier,” said MaineHealth Director of Workforce Development Jennifer O’Leary.
There is a concerted effort to help employees move up in the company, through training, mentorships and job shadowing, she said. Considering Maine’s skilled labor shortage, supporting good employees’ career goals is a top priority.
“We have really been trying to focus on career pathways, to merge people into traditional health care, or office administration or information technology,” O’Leary said. “For workforce development, you always have to provide that support.”
Maine lawmakers are taking baby steps to address the state’s foreign-educated workforce. This legislative session, the state Department of Professional and Financial Regulation put forward a bill that would give its commissioner the authority to waive documentation requirements for licensure and certain fees from applicants with relevant experience in other countries, U.S. states and territories, as long as it did not lower any licensing standards.
The reasoning behind the proposed law was laid out in a 2019 report that examined the various barriers to state licensure, both by foreign nationals and residents of other U.S. states who move to Maine.
There is a growing realization about the scale of the issue around the country, said Batalova, from the Migration Policy Institute. When the organization started researching brain waste, only a handful of organizations existed to help college-educated immigrants. Now there are dozens across several states. Last year Colorado, Michigan and Iowa tried to relax state medical licensing in order to better confront the coronavirus pandemic.
In other cases, there are efforts to take people who cannot realistically restart their career as a doctor and place them in related roles, such as public health workers. Technology can make it easier to create English language courses tailored to specific professional fields that people across the country can access.
The Biden administration is likely open to providing resources and leadership on the issue, too, Batalova said. That’s important because the problem is becoming worse – immigrants to the U.S. today are more likely to have higher education degrees than even 10 years ago, she said.
“There is definitely a greater awareness on the part of government and employers of what they are missing and what they could and should be doing,” Batalova said. “I’m an optimist by nature, but based on everything we know, I am optimistic.”