Brain Waste: Developing Underutilized Potential in Highly-Skilled, Underemployed Immigrants

By Oluwaseyi Fatokun

Economic Implications of Brain Waste

On average, one out of four immigrants with foreign degrees and/or credentials are unemployed or underemployed (Fix & Batalova, 2016). This dilemma is also referred to as brain waste because these immigrants are highly skilled college graduates who are unable to fully utilize their skills and education in the United States. This has resulted in a loss for federal, state, and local governments of more than $39 billion in wages with more than $10 billion in unrealized tax earnings (Fix & Batalova, 2016). The human, economic, and labor impact is devastating and must be systemically addressed.

Recent Legislation

In October 2022, the Bridging the Gap for New Americans Act was signed into law by the U.S. Congress. This legislation requires the Department of Labor to conduct a study that determines factors affecting employment opportunities of lawfully present immigrants and provides policy recommendations to assist with securing skill appropriate employment in the United States (Bridging the Gap, 2022). The study will include (a) an analysis of the employment history of lawfully present immigrants and refugees during the past five years in comparison to employment held in prior country of residence, (b) an assessment of barriers preventing employment based on lack of US work experience, and (c) an analysis of public and private resources readily available for this specific population. The U.S. Secretary of Labor will be required to submit a report no later than April 2024, which will be accessible to the public via the U.S. Department of Labor’s website (GovTrack.us, n.d.). As the government strives to strengthen the workforce to ensure economic mobility for immigrants, it is important for career development professionals to be aware of experienced barriers and available resources to assist clients in securing professional employment.

Barriers.  Often times when immigrants come to the United States, they must restart their career pathway because being a doctor, engineer, nurse, teacher, lawyer, or other highly skilled professional in one’s home country does not make it easy to immediately gain employment in the US. It is not uncommon for newcomers to work low-skilled jobs (e.g., nannies, janitors, security guards, taxi drivers) in order to quickly make money to support themselves and their family. Organizations such as Upwardly Global exist to help with the need to rebuild a professional career. Their mission is “eliminate employment barriers for immigrant and refugee professionals while advancing the inclusion of their skills into the US economy” (Upwardly Global, 2023, para. 4). Upwardly Global participants have mentioned the need to work 40+ hours while trying to restart life in the US. For example, Andres was an engineer in Venezuela; however, he worked 16 hours a day as a ride-share driver until he was able to secure a full-time job in a more specialized role (Upwardly Global, 2019).

According to Nguyen et al. (2015), some barriers to professional employment are:


Today, Frank Parsons, “the father of career counseling,” would probably agree that a “tireless” commitment to immigrants is critical for social change due to “the unequal distribution of wealth and power” (Evans & Sejuit, 2021, p. 195).  When working with highly skilled, underemployed immigrants, it is important to approach one’s clients in an equitable and inclusive fashion.  To act as an agent of social justice, practitioners must first assess their own cultural competency. “Because we internalize our culture so completely, we are often unaware of cultural influences in our lives” (Evans & Sejuit, 2021, p. 18).  Exercises to discover the impact of one’s culture can be found in NCDA’s Gaining Cultural Competence in Career Counseling (2nd edition; Evans & Sejuit, 2021). WES Global Talent Bridge (2015) and Nguyen et al. (2015) created practical guides to help reduce brain waste and bridge the gap for foreign-educated immigrants. Career development professionals will find these resources useful and beneficial when assisting their clients with securing gainful employment.  

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Some action steps provided by these resources include:

Advocating for Social Justice

With nearly two million immigrants experiencing brain waste (Fix & Batalova, 2016), it is crucial for career development professionals to be proactive in helping to create a more inclusive and equitable society. To better serve this population, one must be aware of their needs, engage in specific professional development opportunities, and be intentional to partner with immigrant serving organizations.





Bridging the Gap for New Americans Act, Pub. L. No. 117-210. (2022, October 17). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/3157

Evans, K. M., & Sejuit, A. L. (2021). Gaining cultural competence in career counseling (2nd ed.). National Career Development Association.

Fix, M., & Batalova, J. (2016, December 6). What is the cost of brain waste for highly skilled immigrants in the U.S.? Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/content/what-cost-brain-waste-highly-skilled-immigrants-us

GovTrack.us. (n.d.). S. 3157-117th Congress: Bridging the Gap for New Americans Act. GovTrack. Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/117/s3157

Nguyen, V., Norouzi, R., & Montalto, N. V. (2015). Reducing brain waste: Creating career pathways for foreign-educated immigrants in Washington state. One America. https://www.immigrationresearch.org/system/files/OA.BrainWaste.final_.pdf

Upwardly Global. (2019, December 17). Andres: "My other job was looking for a job" [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wh3LLz3JPWo&list=PLlR4qqRQwkfDuwbU8ITdadfVkKnUTJJKf&index=9

Upwardly Global. (2023). About upwardly global. https://www.upwardlyglobal.org/about-us/

WES Global Talent Bridge. (2015). Bridging the gap for foreign-educated immigrants: A guide for community colleges. World Education Services. https://knowledge.wes.org/rs/317-CTM-316/images/Community_Colleges_Guide_Bridging_the_Gap_for_Foreign-Educated_Immigrants_WES.pdf


Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.


Oluwaseyi FatokinOluwaseyi Fatokun is a higher education and nonprofit professional with a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies, Professional Counseling, and Marriage and Family Therapy from Oral Roberts University. She is also a NCDA Certified Career Counselor. Her interest is in providing innovative solutions to address social inequities, develop potential, and create inclusion for disadvantaged populations. Oluwaseyi can be contacted at oafatokun@gmail.com and https://www.linkedin.com/in/oafatokun

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Dr. DR   on Saturday 03/04/2023 at 09:28 PM

Woohoo & Well Done! Thank you Mrs. Fatokun for not only raising awareness to the injustice of Brain Waste, but moreover providing pragmatic solutions and resources to empower employers to bridge the gap, and prepare to welcome qualified immigrants, that is assets to their company. “Knowledge is power on Every Level”- Pastor Paul B. Mitchell

Sherry Moyers   on Thursday 03/09/2023 at 09:11 AM

Thank you for all the links, in particular, Upwardly Global and CCCIE.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.