Hiring Skilled Immigrants in Massachusetts: What Employers Need to Know

June 12, 2024

A problem and a solution are sitting in the same room. How do we rearrange the furniture to get them together? 

That, in essence, was the topic of the June 12 forum hosted by SkillWorks and African Bridge Network (ABN) at the Boston Foundation. The problem: a shortage of workers in the Commonwealth, especially skilled workers and professionals. The solution: a wealth of new people arriving in our state, many holding bachelor’s degree equivalents and advanced degrees in engineering, medicine, and other practices. Our current policy structure and regulatory procedures, however, make up a jumble of obstacles keeping these two sides of the issue from meeting. 

SkillWorks Executive Director Andre Green opened the session, painting the backdrop of the shrinking workforce and expanding immigrant population in Massachusetts. He introduced Emmanuel Osuwu, ABN’s Executive Director, for more detail on the numbers and the obstacles that sideline too many educated and skilled immigrants, depriving our communities of their talents.  

Nearly a quarter of a million people in Massachusetts have a degree from outside the United States. Around 106,000 of these have a bachelor’s degree, signaling an interest in learning and capacity for training. Many are mid-career physicians. But to be able to practice in the U.S. they must go back almost to square one of their educations. They need to pass expensive and extensive examinations, and apply for competitive residency positions, alongside those just getting out of medical school in the U.S.  

Intellectuals and professionals often leave strife-riven places because of persecution and danger rather than to search for opportunity. Yet most end up in positions underutilizing their skills, Osuwu said, and often not earning enough to live independently. If they could practice their profession, however, they would earn more and not need public support. He shared how ABN works to get practitioners on track to return to something close to their field of expertise.  

ABN helped one Haitian doctor get placed in a research lab at Mass General, where she could develop a new hospital-based professional network and learn about American health systems. The good news is that through this experience, she was able to obtain a medical residency. The bad news—for us—is that it is in Florida. “We are in a nationwide race for talent,” Osuwu said, and asked: “What is possible in Massachusetts? We have to step up.” He listed several partners tackling the challenge from different angles: the community colleges offering targeted English language training, employers like Mass General starting to recognize the untapped talent among their immigrant workforce, funders supporting these programs, organizations like the Mass Business Roundtable and Harvard pursuing research into the issues, and state and federal level interventions as well. 


Key Links:

Click to view the presentation from this event



Andre Green, Executive Director, SkillWorks, an initiative of The Boston Foundation

State of the Field Update
Emmanuel Owusu, Executive Director, African Bridge Network
Physician Pathway Act Update
Amy GrunderDirector of State Government Affairs, MIRA Coalition

2024 MA Workforce Development Plan
Lauren Jones, Secretary of Labor & Workforce Development, Commonwealth of

UMass Donahue Institute Report Presentation
Ember Skye Kane-Lee, Research Manager of Economic & Public Policy Research, UMass Amherst
Commissioning of an Advisory Group for the Immigrant Professional Verification Program
Jeffrey Gross,
Senior Advisor, World Education Services Global Talent Bridge

Osuwu was followed by Amy Grunder, Director of State Government Affairs for MIRA Coalition, who gave an update on the state’s Physician Pathway Act (PPA). She highlighted that although Massachusetts has the highest physician-to-resident ratio of all states, 40 percent of physicians are in Suffolk County, where only 11 percent of the population is. And a quarter of physicians report contemplating retirement soon. This leaves rural areas of our state vastly underserved. Licensing barriers and a credentialing system set up for those early in their careers make it hard for foreign-trained doctors to step in. But the PPA aims to fix this mismatch by offering expedited avenues to certification tied to commitments to service in areas of need. As Grunder said, “Experienced MDs don’t need to repeat their clinical training but to be acquainted with non-clinical medical standards and culture in the United States.” Grunder and others are optimistic we’ll see action on this bill before the summer is over. 

Massachusetts Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Lauren Jones next offered the Commonwealth’s perspective, including stats on the response to the last year’s bump in arrivals here: 3,500 have been assisted by MassHire to get work authorization; 1,100 from shelters have found work; and 1,000 are in language classes. She outlined other plans on the table, including identifying untapped talent within the executive branch, and exploring registered apprenticeships to diversify the building trades as well as credit analyst and biotech jobs. 

Ember Skye Kane-Lee, Research Manager of Economic & Public Policy Research, presented the UMass Donahue Center’s report on the topic, suggesting we suffer less from the familiar “brain drain” of skilled, educated people leaving than from “brain waste,” not using the skills and education languishing within reach. She named the barriers for the approximately 240,000 college educated immigrants in the Commonwealth: 

  • legal status and visa issues; 
  • credential recognition;  
  • complex application processes and jargon;  
  • cultural literacy and hiring norms;  
  • high costs (money and time) for ESOL, credential services, exams; 
  • technical/industry-specific language; and
  • general information gaps.  

For all of these, however, there are clear interventions: 

  • offer career counseling/mentoring; 
  • make training accessible (low cost, nontraditional hours); 
  • expedite legitimizing of credentials; 
  • address language gaps with new and expanded ESOL programs; and
  • promote professional networking, e.g., a buddy system at work  

These all require funding and, in a sense, marketing so that people who need the services know where to find them.  

The event closed with a call to action - an invitation for volunteers to join the advisory group for the Immigrant Professional Verification Program, which will support the African Bridge Network (ABN) in developing a program aimed at verifying the key qualifications of skilled immigrants, making them more attractive to employers in Massachusetts. The Verification Program also aims to serve as a bridge program for other immigrant-serving organizations working to place skilled immigrants into mid- and high-skilled occupations. For more information download the information sheet or contact Emmanuel Owusu at Emmanuel@africanbn.org.