Maine desperately needs skilled workers in a variety of professions. Yet thousands of well-educated Mainers are not able to make full use of their education and training.

When professionals move here from other countries, they are met with a series of obstacles. Even with sought-after skills and years of experience to offer, they often have trouble finding work in their chosen field.

Celia Mantovani, photographed outside her home in Portland, is a Brazilian psychiatrist who hasn’t been able to work in her field since she moved to Maine. She is one of thousands of foreign professionals struggling to use their skills in the U.S. because of education and licensing barriers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Known as “brain waste,” this is a problem all over the country, including Maine, where by one count more than 2,000 college-educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed, the Press Herald’s Peter McGuire reported this week.

Fixing it in our state would not only help immigrants here now reach their goals, but also would make Maine a destination for skilled workers from other countries, providing a much-needed boost to the workforce in the state.

To make that happen, a number of barriers need to be disassembled. The first, no surprise, has to do with English-language skills, particularly with the technical jargon specific to different industries.

But there are other, more complex problems. Many newcomers to the U.S., particularly refugees, left their country of origin quickly, under duress, and can’t get the documents that show their education and professional experience.

Even if immigrants do have proof of their skills, the various agencies and boards that handle professional licensing and certification don’t always accept them as proof of competence.

With regards to their professional aspirations, that leaves these immigrants back at square one. Often, they are left there – if you’re just trying to survive in a new country, it can be hard to fit in classes or to navigate the licensing bureaucracy.

In time, many lose the desire to go back to their former profession – and we all lose out because of it.

Immigrants, as a whole, are more likely to hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree than the U.S.-born population. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 2 million of these immigrants are unemployed or underemployed – including about 2,100 in Maine – and their unrealized wages add up to $40 billion a year.

That’s not only lost tax revenue and economic activity – it’s lost opportunity and security for thousands of Mainers and their families.

It is in Maine’s interest to provide them support. Immigrants need to be put into positions where they can learn and practice English. Professional networks, such as Portland Professional Connections, a program started three years ago in the city, can help immigrants build contacts and learn field-specific language.

Maine should also expand its program that supports new Mainers, which includes English-language training as well as vocational training, and help immigrants connect with their communities and the employers in them.

The Legislature will consider such a bill this year, as well as one that would allow the state to waive certain requirements for workers with relevant experience, as long as it doesn’t lower any licensing standards.

Lawmakers should look at these and other bills with the aim of getting more immigrants into positions that take full advantage of their abilities. Maine shouldn’t sit back while skilled workers are underutilized, and immigrants shouldn’t go through the long process of coming here only to have their dreams dashed by bureaucracy and short-term thinking.

Maine should be proud that it has become a safe place of refuge for people from all over the world. Now, for the sake of its immigrant residents and the future of the state, it must become a land of opportunity.


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