Career Transitions of Highly Skilled Immigrants: Two Case Studies

By Lane, Alexandra; Lee, Debbiesiu L. | Career Development Quarterly, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Career Transitions of Highly Skilled Immigrants: Two Case Studies


Lane, Alexandra, Lee, Debbiesiu L., Career Development Quarterly


The United States makes use of an international pool of talent within most of its specialized professions. A diversified, specialized workforce contributes to the economic and social advancement of the country. Currently, one fourth of all U.S. physicians, and almost half of all scientists with doctorates, are immigrants (American Psychological Association, 2012). In addition, the National Foundation for American Policy found that over half of America's start-up companies valued over $1 billion were founded by immigrants, and 70% of them have immigrants as key members of management or product development (Anderson, 2016).

As globalization and technology reshape the international labor market, highly skilled immigrants become even more important as educated workers in developing countries are increasingly sought after to provide crucial skills (Maidment, 2003). Highly skilled immigrants are generally defined by their possession of special skills, knowledge, or training, although they can also be defined more precisely as immigrants with a college degree or more, in contrast with low-skilled immigrants, who lack a high school diploma (Card, 2009). For the purposes of this study, we define highly skilled immigrants as individuals with a graduate-level education and training experience in a field of practice. These immigrants allow host nations to overcome skill shortages in crucially needed professions, such as medicine and engineering (Aalto et al., 2014; Al Ariss, Koall, Özbilgin, & Suutari, 2012); thus, their optimal functioning within the community is important to researchers and policy makers.

Despite the strong contributions highly skilled immigrants can make to their new society, these individuals often face many obstacles in gaining recognition for their skills and credentials in the United States. The process of becoming certified can be long and complex, requiring the negotiation of various state and federal bureaucracies and retraining at a community college, university, or professional school (Aycan & Berry, 1996; Smart & Smart, 1995). In addition, this process can be financially costly, with a great deal of uncertainty associated with the outcome of these investments (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.).

In the interim, many of these immigrants are forced to take on menial and contingent survival jobs that entail a loss of status and that do not engage their skills (Dean & Wilson, 2009). For example, a doctor may end up working as an orderly in a hospital (Moore, 2016), or an engineer may end up in the production line at a factory (Dean & Wilson, 2009). This process of de-skilling is one of a confluence of stressors this group of immigrants can face, given that they are also often in the process of adapting to a new language and culture. All of these factors can lead to unemployment, underemployment, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a struggle to acculturate (Aycan & Berry, 1996; Cislo, Spence, & Gayman, 2010; Nakhaie & Kazemipur, 2013).

Fueled by the momentum of globalization over the years, research on the career transitions of highly skilled immigrants has been on the rise. Most of this research has been conducted outside the United States. Canada is witness to a proliferation of literature on this topic (Amundson, Firbank, Klein, & Poehnell, 1991; Aten, Nardon, & Isabelle, 2016; Zikic, Bonache, & Cerdin, 2010), as well as Australia (Cooke, Zhang, & Wang, 2013; Joseph, 2013) and Israel (Itzhaki, Ea, Ehrenfeld, & Fitzpatrick, 2013; Shuval, 2000). Studies have also been conducted throughout Europe (Aalto et al., 2014; Cooke, 2007; Pearson, Hammond, Heffernan, & Turner, 2012; Ramboarison-Lalao, Al Ariss, & Barth, 2012; Roberman, 2013) and New Zealand (Mace, Atkins, Fletcher, & Carr, 2005). This research has been important in laying a foundation of knowledge about the experiences of highly skilled immigrants in general across the globe. …

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