Are foreign-born professionals in St. Louis achieving their full potential? | St. Louis Public Radio

Are foreign-born professionals in St. Louis achieving their full potential?

Apr 6, 2016

Susan Gobbo, a native of Brazil, moved to the United States in 2005 and then to St. Louis in 2008 with her husband, who was offered a position stateside with Nestle Purina. Sounds like an exciting move, right?

One problem: Gobbo, a trained and licensed physical therapist in her home country, was not able to find a physical therapy job in the United States because many medical facilities viewed her as unqualified. The costs for training and recertification were high, so Gobbo’s high expectation of life in the U.S. deflated a little bit.

It’s a story you’ll see time and time again: An immigrant comes to the United States with graduate degrees, professional credentialing and work experience in hand and, yet, can’t seem to find a job that utilizes those skills.

“I started off doing this by myself and it is huge, it is very complex,” Gobbo said. “I went through the internet and they send you link to link and it is very complicated. Then, I tried to find a university and they don’t know how to help you. I translated all my documents but they said, ‘I know you have a lot of education, but I don’t know what to do with you.’ That’s hard.”

"I started off doing this by myself and it is huge, it is very complex."

Contrary to popular belief, visa issues are not the largest barrier to finding work in the United States, said Paul Feltman, the director of Global Talent Bridge with World Education Services, a leading national organization that deals with issues like these and offers credentialing training to immigrants.

There are 7.2 million college-educated immigrants who are living with permanent residency in the United States who don’t need a visa. Of that number, Feltman said, 1.8 million, about 25 percent, are either unemployed or working in unskilled jobs even though they have degrees. Half of those have advanced degrees. The problem lies in other issues that may not be top of mind.

“For many [immigrants], things as straightforward as limited English and lacking a professional networking that helps people find jobs are an issue,” Feltman said. “It is not that they’re inadequate, it is more that they are misunderstood or their skills aren’t recognized by larger society. There’s this little cloud of doubt about what that experience is.”

Blake Hamilton, the senior manager for workforce solutions at the International Institute of St. Louis, says immigrants and refugees who come to the St. Louis area must confront such barriers all the time. A new program, launched today by the International Institute, seeks to provide an enhanced entrepreneur and career path services for skilled foreign-born individuals living here. It is called the Center for Career Advancement. The St. Louis Mosaic Project also works with foreign-born professionals to assist in their professional development.

“We find that credentialing is one part of it but networking and language need to be addressed when pushing people back into their field that they trained for,” Hamilton said. “We’re trying to have early intervention with the folks who want to go down this path.”

The center will offer services like contextualized language training in specific fields like health care, engineering and the like as well as career path planning and networking services.

Gobbo, who decided not to pursue a physical therapy career in the United States due to the high cost of retraining, has instead employed her skills as a Portuguese instructor at St. Louis Community College. Likewise, she started the organization Viva Brasil STL, a non-profit that works to promote Brazilian culture in St. Louis.

“To the immigrants who come here, like myself, I would tell you to look for institutions like the International Institute and Mosaic to help find a path,” Gobbo said.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.   

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.