reWorking Michigan: Immigrants Face Re-Certification Challenges

Feb 6, 2012

 ReWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lakes State explore new ways to make a living and build a future. 

 Today, our reWorking Michigan Monday report looks at the challenges facing immigrants with backgrounds in professional fields.  Thousands of health care providers, engineers and financial specialists who’ve earned their credentials in their home countries often start at or near the bottom as they work to become re-certified in the United States.  Experts say that can be an impediment for employers searching for prospective hires.

Chandra Ghalley has crossed many barriers in life.  He was born on the plains of southern Bhutan in the shadow of the Himalayas.  In 1992, political unrest forced him across the mountains to neighboring Nepal.  In his camp, Ghalley became an accounting instructor.  He eventually made his way to India and received his master’s degree at the University of Mumbai. 

 Ghalley arrived in Lansing in 2008.  Like every immigrant, he had to re-build his life and career all over again.

 “When I came here it was very confusing,” Ghalley remembers.  “I did not know where to go to seek information.  I didn’t know I needed to get a license to practice accounting in a public accounting firm.”

 Ghalley did find help in his new home.  The Michigan State Board of Accountancy directed him to get his credentials reviewed.  He took a few more classes at Lansing Community College.  Last May, two and a half years after coming to America, Ghalley passed his CPA exams on the first try.

 Not all immigrants from regulated professions are so fortunate.  Judi Harris is the refugee program director for St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Lansing.  Her team tries to place new arrivals in jobs similar to their chosen fields…but it’s seldom a perfect fit.

 “It’s not just a matter of doing their dues, it’s doing their dues again,” says Harris.  “And it’s harder here because of the language, because of the culture, and because they’re under stress just from the change.”

 Harris says the good news is that people from the professional fields are extremely adaptable and can perform many different functions.   

 Jennifer Brennan agrees.  She worked with refugees in Lansing in the mid-90’s.  Today she’s with Upwardly Global in Chicago.  It’s a non-profit whose mission is to smooth the way for immigrants entering the U-S workforce.  Brennan cites a study published last December by the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy.  She says the evidence shows high-skilled immigrants enhance, not eliminate, opportunities for native-born workers.

 “They found that for every 100 immigrants with advanced degrees, regardless of the field or where they obtained their degrees, they find that it actually creates an additional 44 jobs for U.S. natives,” Brennan says.

 And the job creation ratio is nearly double among immigrants in the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  There, 100 immigrants help spur 86 additional jobs for American workers.

 But selling that message is the hard part for those trying to bridge the gaps for immigrant workers.

 Athena Trentin directs the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Southeast Michigan.  She mainly works with foreign nationals who come to the U.S. to study.  Temporary student visas sometimes become extended work visas, and Trentin also helps employers navigate federal regulations.  She says companies want to rise above the negative perceptions that immigrants displace American workers.

 “Because they’re coming to me saying, ‘I can’t fill these jobs.  If I can’t fill these jobs, I can’t create more jobs and put people in Michigan back to work,’” says Trentin. 

 Language is another obvious barrier for immigrants.  Chandra Ghalley, the accountant from Bhutan, got much of his education in English-speaking India.  Even so, he admits he had some difficulty comprehending the questions on his CPA exam.  He’s working on his fluency, but Ghalley believes that’s still keeping some doors closed.

 “It’s very challenging for a refugee with limited English who doesn’t have associations with a good accounting firm,” Ghalley says.  “It’s very hard.”

 Chandra Ghalley is still looking for his ideal position.  He’s a registered CPA in Illinois, but not yet licensed in Michigan.  His dream is to give something back to his people.  Lansing has a significant number of Bhutanese refugees.  One day, Chandra Ghalley says he’d like to serve their needs with his own public accounting firm.