Migration Policy Institute: Don’t Waste Immigrant Talent

We’ve all heard stories like this: a highly-qualified doctor immigrates to the United States only to wind up working as a lab tech because his or her credentials – though outstanding – are not recognized here. In December, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan Washington think tank, convened an international panel of experts for a scholarly discussion of the problem, which they aptly call “brain waste” – squandering the prodigious talents of immigrant workers merely because, in many cases, we lack systems to quickly and efficiently establish the equivalency of credentials earned overseas. [See Tackling Brain Waste Among Immigrant Professionals: Initiatives to Improve the Recognition of Foreign Qualifications, Migration Policy Institute, 12.Dec.2013.]

The event coincided with the release of a new MPI report that outlines the complex challenges confronting policymakers who hope to streamline the credential-recognition process for foreign workers. [See Skilled Immigrants in the Global Economy: Prospects for International Cooperation on Recognition of Foreign Qualifications, by Madeleine Sumption, Demetrios G. Papademetriou, and Sarah Flamm, Migration Policy Institute, Dec.2013.]

One of the biggest problems, MPI says, is the fragmentation of authority over the credentialing and licensing process. In many countries, entry into professions like law, medicine, nursing, architecture, and engineering – among others – are regulated by a patchwork of requirements from state- and national-government agencies, as well as professional associations and other standard-setting bodies. For example: MPI notes that in the United States, there are 54 jurisdictions at the state level – or its functional equivalent – and licensing practices can vary widely from place to place, even though many professions have national licensing exams. Indeed, MPI observes, “in some occupations, it can be difficult to transfer a license from another U.S. state, let alone one from abroad.”

According to the MPI report, the lack of uniform national standards for credential-recognition and licensing complicates the efforts to negotiate Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) at the international level – agreements that would “set out clear rules for licensing practitioners who move between signatory countries,” in order to “reduce, or even eliminate, the need for case-by-case assessments when applicants have been trained in systems conferring essentially comparable skills and knowledge.”

Absent such agreements, the “brain waste” problem will continue, and that’s a shame -especially when it’s already a challenge to attract and retain the world’s best and brightest in an increasingly competitive international labor market. As it is, work visas and residency permits are hard enough to come by – think, for instance, of the caps that restrict the number of H1B visas available in any given year. If a company, a university, or research institute takes the trouble to recruit world-class talent from overseas, it’s only right that they should get the full benefit of their bargain. By the same token, overseas professionals should be free to contribute the full measure of their talent and expertise, and should not be hampered by outdated bureaucratic regulations.

As the MPI report notes, the United States and European Union are currently working toward common standards for international credential recognition – an admirable first step, but hardly sufficient, given the global scope of the problem.


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