When Noreen Hartley arrived in Atlanta from Jamaica in 1996, she was fortunate to quickly find work as a call-center supervisor. But the 33-year-old former bank manager wanted to get back into accounting. There was one problem: Every time she applied for accountant jobs, she was told she didn’t have the right U.S. work experience. “It was so frustrating,” says Hartley. “An accountant is an accountant, no matter where you are from.”
Eventually, Hartley convinced one employer to give her a chance. “I told him, ‘Give me 30 days to prove to you that I know what I’m doing,’ ” she says. “I ended up staying two years.” In 2002, Hartley returned to college and earned a degree in accounting from Kennesaw State University.
She has since worked as a controller at a trust- and estate-planning firm and is now a senior accountant at the travel commerce company Travelport. Her career has enabled a level of success that she is proud of, from her beautiful Acworth home to a son in private school and a daughter who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Georgia.
Today, Hartley advocates establishing bridge programs to help immigrant professionals qualify for U.S. professional licenses. “Of course, they need additional training to meet American standards, but in many cases the basic training is the same,” she says.
There is so much opportunity. The sky really is the limit. Let’s help the latest arrivals do their best work here.
It’s a timely concern, given that immigrants today are more educated than at any time in history. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of immigrants who arrived in the United States between 2010 and 2015 had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with only 20 percent of new arrivals who did before 1970. Today many have advanced degrees, as well.
Yet many remain underemployed — at great cost to the U.S. economy. “People’s education and work from other countries isn’t recognized, so they’re forced to take a lesser job,” says Hartley. “They will take a $10 job just to have a job, but then it takes them a long time to get back to where they were.” This represents lost income for the U.S. government and for Americans. One study found that an estimated 1.9 million high-skilled immigrants are underemployed, leading to an annual loss of $39.4 billion in earnings and $10.2 billion in tax payments.
There is a human cost, as well. In Georgia, a state where more than one out of every eight residents is now elderly, finding enough healthcare workers to take care of Americans is a challenge that is only expected to worsen as the baby-boom generation ages. The data shows that Immigrants are twice as likely as U.S.-born Americans to fill high-skill healthcare positions as physicians and surgeons, and twice as likely to take low-skill healthcare jobs like those as home health aides. Georgia already has 11 open healthcare jobs for every one unemployed healthcare worker; 23 percent of doctors practicing in the state today were educated abroad.
Other industries, particularly those in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, also face a growing need for qualified workers if the United States is to remain competitive in the international economy. According to a report by the American Competitiveness Alliance, U.S. employers are struggling to fill open information technology and STEM positions. A New American Economy study found that in 2016 more than 12 STEM jobs were posted online for every available, trained STEM worker,
Bridge programs such as those Hartley envisions would enable new Americans in professional fields to enter the workforce more quickly, allowing them to give their skills to the industries and communities that need them most. “Instead of requiring immigrants to start from scratch, we should facilitate their transition into the American workforce,” Hartley wrote in the Marietta Daily Journal.
“America is an amazing country,” Hartley says. “There is so much opportunity. The sky really is the limit. Let’s help the latest arrivals do their best work here.”