IMPRINT: Immigrant Professional Integration

Brain Waste

Understanding the Problem

Brain Waste – The underutilization of skills and education in the workplace despite high professional qualifications, resulting in unemployment and underemployment.

Many immigrants and refugees with training and credentials earned overseas arrive in the U.S. hoping to make full use of their previous education and experience. In fact, recent immigrants are the most educated in history with nearly 50 percent reporting to have a bachelor’s degree or higher.[i] Yet, over two million of these new Americans are either unemployed, or underemployed, working in low-skilled positions.[ii] This phenomenon is known as “brain waste” and results in a loss of over $10 billion in unrealized federal, state, and local taxes.[iii]

This reflects the worst of outcomes, as their home countries suffer the “brain drain” of sending these talented workers abroad, while the US allows widespread “brain waste” of many work-authorized new arrivals.

Of those affected by “brain waste”, the majority are foreign-educated immigrants, or those who obtained their training and credentials abroad, making up over 1 million of the affected population. This foreign-educated group is also more likely to be underemployed compared to their U.S.-educated counterparts (29% versus 21%).[iv]

This underuse of the skills and talents of these individuals means that important assets within our economy are going to waste, while the country faces a skills shortage in many of the same professions for which these talented immigrants and refugees are trained. The result is that employers who are struggling to close skill gaps in sectors such as health and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are missing out on the vital talent pool that skilled immigrants and refugees represent.

In fact, research shows that 64% of employers believe there is a skills gap in their company which makes 42% of their companies less sufficient. As of 2019, the most desirable degrees are in IT, business, and STEM.[v] At the same time, demographic changes such as an aging population and a slowdown in population growth are projected to cause a continuing decline in labor force participation through 2028.[vi]

We are confident that with targeted training and appropriate opportunities, foreign-educated immigrants and refugees can provide a meaningful talent pipeline for key industries in the US labor market.

Key Data on Brain Waste in the U.S.:

There are 8,974,000 college-educated immigrants in the civilian labor force (age 25+).[vii]

– 25% of college-educated immigrants in the labor force are affected by brain waste, that’s a total of 2,022,000 immigrants.[viii]
– Foreign-educated immigrants have a higher rate of brain waste (29%) than U.S. educated immigrants (21%).[ix]

Brain waste resulted in immigrant college graduates foregoing approximately $39.4 billion in earnings and an additional $10.2 billion taxes annually.[x]

For state-specific details on brain waste, please visit our Data Tool, the second tab on the Program Map page.

Solving the Problem:

So how can we help immigrant professionals overcome these structural barriers and apply their talents in their chosen professions? For more than a decade, the member organizations of IMPRINT have sought to answer that question. We have systematically experimented with practical tools to address the most common challenges.

Today, we offer the distilled wisdom of our shared experience. From innovative “bridge programs” to specialized educational counseling, IMPRINT members and partners have tackled the challenge of immigrant professional integration and identified promising practices to aid in launching these workers on a new trajectory.  Explore our Program Map to learn more about these initiatives, their missions, and the services they provide.

Policy Recommendations for Addressing Brain Waste:

    1. Invest in programs to upgrade skills or fill in gaps when necessary, enabling foreign-trained immigrants and refugees to access the education and training they need to reenter their professions.
    2. Include foreign-trained immigrants and English Language Learners in relevant RFPs from all federal agencies and affirm the eligibility of immigrants to participate in federally-funded workforce and training programs.
    3. Support state and local communities to advance the work of immigrant professional integration. Provide technical assistance to strengthen the capacity of local community agencies, that advise and place immigrants and refugees into professional positions.
    4. Reduce barriers to regulated professions by supporting states to review licensing standards and harmonize assessment mechanisms among regulators of a given profession; streamline assessment processes, which are lengthy, unduly complex, and prohibitively expensive. Provide more information about licensing, re-credentialing, and career services to foreign-trained professionals.


In an effort to support advocates and policymakers across the nation, IMPRINT tracks and maps relevant policies and legislation that aim to reduce and remove unnecessary barriers to licensure and increase career opportunities for foreign trained, work-authorized immigrants and refugees. Explore our Policy Map for more details.

Want to know more?

Contact us! We’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can harness the remarkable energy and ambition of immigrant professionals – and focus their skills in the areas most needed in the US economy.

[i] Migration Policy Institute. 2016. “Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States.”

[ii] Migration Policy Institute. 2020. “State Immigration Data Profiles.”

[iii] U.S. News and World Report. 2014. “CEOs Say Skills Gap Is Problematic.”

[iv] Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019.

[v] Wiley Education Services. 2019. “Closing the Skills Gap 2019 Research Report.

[vi] Migration Policy Institute. 2016. “Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States.”

[vii] Migration Policy Institute. 2016. “Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States.”

[viii] Migration Policy Institute. 2016. “Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States.” Ibid.

[ix] Migration Policy Institute. 2019. “State Immigration Data Profiles.”

[x] Migration Policy Institute. 2016. “Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States.”

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