Recognizing Foreign Education and Employment Authorization

Foreign-educated immigrants have the potential to revitalize the economy of the United States (U.S.) by offering their advanced-degree knowledge and global work experience. In recognition of the value immigrant job-seekers can bring to the U.S. economy, the new administration has made immigration reform a priority. In fact, our new Vice President, Kamala Harris, is the daughter of immigrants. Since last summer, many organizations have also begun to shift their hiring and workplace policies to prioritize Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, as the country continues to work toward a more just and equitable society. This all comes as the COVID-19 vaccine is beginning distribution in Pennsylvania, giving hope for a gradual end to work from home orders and an increase in employment as the economy can truly reopen.  

Despite these exciting changes on the horizon, immigrant job-seekers may encounter two hurdles to obtaining employment commensurate with their education and experience. First, U.S. employers may not understand how to compare an immigrant job-seeker’s foreign degree with a U.S. equivalent. They may also have questions about employment authorization and if an employer sponsorship process is needed to allow an immigrant to legally work in the U.S.  

The disparities in U.S. employers’ recognition of foreign degrees and comprehension of U.S. employment authorization can lead to the unemployment or underemployment of many foreign-trained, qualified immigrant job-seekers across the country. Moreover, the disparity in recognizing foreign education persists across a variety of industries. As a result, employers in certain industries may recognize foreign education to a greater degree than others, leading to disparities in the ability of immigrants to obtain employment in the industry that corresponds to their advanced degree. 

Pictured: Graduates of The Welcoming Center’s International Professionals Program

It can be hard to find U.S. employment with a foreign degree.

Many U.S. employers experience difficulty evaluating foreign degrees. This may be due to the less immediate “name recognition” of foreign institutions compared to U.S. colleges and universities. Additionally, the foreign equivalent of a U.S. degree may have a completely different name. For example, a Medical Degree in the U.S. is akin to a foreign degree commonly known as a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (M.B.B.S.). Conversely, in the U.S., a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to a Medical Degree, not the degree itself. Compounded by differences in work culture, industry-specific language, and networking, U.S. employers’ ability to recognize and evaluate a foreign degree can hinder the career mobility of immigrant job-seekers within their specific field. 

In order to equate a foreign degree with an American degree, the employer may request a third-party evaluation of the foreign degree. These third-party educational evaluation services often present a significant cost, and the immigrant job-seeker may be asked to shoulder the financial burden. Too often, such formal evaluations are simply out of reach. 

 In other cases and for certain industries, such as the legal field, immigrant job-seekers find themselves with no other choice but to obtain a U.S. degree equivalent to their foreign degree if they wish to practice the same profession in the U.S. as they practiced in their home country. Unfortunately, the cost of an American advanced degree and the time spent earning the degree, time they would otherwise spend earning a living, may preclude them from doing so.  

Due to the immensely time-consuming and expensive process of obtaining a U.S. degree, far too many immigrant job seekers find themselves with no other option but to find alternative means of employment. Too often, this leads to underemployment among highly trained, advanced-degree immigrant professionals. A foreign-trained lawyer, for example, may work in the U.S. as a paralegal or a legal services coordinator, unable to afford an American law degree, while Americans who graduated law school at the same time may become the most senior partner at their firm in the same time frame. 


Recognition of foreign education varies across degree type and industry.  

The disparities among U.S. employers in recognizing foreign education persist across degree types and industries. Immigrant job-seekers may have more success obtaining employment in the U.S. that matches their education and skill level when they can demonstrate a clear and tangible history of strong work products, such as a portfolio. In the technology industry, immigrants may have more success obtaining employment in the U.S. because they can show a U.S. employer a clear portfolio of their past work. Similarly, an immigrant employee at a U.S. organization may have more success advancing through the ranks of the organization if they can present a tangible work product to the employer to show their skills. Conversely, in the medical industry, immigrants may face more difficulty proving themselves to a U.S. employer. Presenting a portfolio of codes or website advertisements is much more straightforward than showing a record of successfully managing a patient’s lung condition. 

Indeed, the difficulties encountered by foreign-trained immigrant job-seekers in the healthcare field prompted Anne O’Callaghan, an Irish physical therapist, to open The Welcoming Center in 2003. After coming to the U.S. from Ireland in 1970, Anne learned that she was unable to take the licensing exam required to practice physical therapy in Pennsylvania because she was foreign-trained. At a time when the state desperately needed more physical therapists to serve the population, Anne had to spend three years working to obtain her Pennsylvania Physical Therapy license. While she found a fulfilling career in community health and taught physical therapy students at the University of Pennsylvania, Anne was forced to use the time she could have spent practicing physical therapy to obtain her license, simply because she was a foreign-trained professional. Like Anne O’Callaghan, many immigrant job-seekers face disparities in the recognition of their foreign education and training that hinder them from serving their community or contributing to the local economy. 

Watch: The Welcoming Center’s founder, Anne O’Callaghan, tells her story

These disparities in the recognition of foreign education and training have further demonstrated the need for a competency-based approach to hiring. Competency-based, or skills-based, hiring focus on the transferrable skills a candidate possesses rather than their level of education or type of degree. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, skills-based hiring evaluates job candidates for the range of skills necessary to succeed in the position rather than their formal educational credentials. While skills-based hiring practices can benefit immigrant job seekers who received foreign degrees, the practice also has broad implications for identifying and recruiting Black and Latinx talent, including both immigrants and nonimmigrants. This approach would also recognize immigrant job-seekers for the skills they gained through foreign education and training while deemphasizing their degree, allowing for a more equitable approach to hiring.  


Many immigrants can work without sponsorship. 

Gaps in employer knowledge of the employment authorization and employer sponsorship of foreign advanced degree holders present another barrier to seeking employment in the U.S. One common misconception about employment authorization is that an employer must “sponsor” an immigrant employee in order for them to legally work for the employer. In reality, employment authorization is different from employer sponsorship processes, such as the H-1B, which is one of many employment-based visas.  

Employment authorization allows foreign nationals* with an existing or pending nonimmigrant visa to legally work in the U.S. Unlike employment authorization, the H-1B is a specific nonimmigrant visa for workers in a specialty occupation with the foreign equivalent of a bachelor’s degree or higher. The H-1B also requires an existing offer of employment from an organization in the U.S.  

Because the U.S. employer applies for the H-1B visa on behalf of the new hire, the process of obtaining an H-1B visa is referred to as a “sponsorship” of the foreign national. Crucially, a foreign national does not need an H-1B visa, or another nonimmigrant visa requiring employer sponsorship, to obtain employment authorization. These are separate processes to be able to legally work in the U.S. Unlike employment authorization, employer sponsorship can present a hefty cost to the employer. Too often, the cost of sponsorship deters U.S. employers from hiring immigrants at all, as they believe immigrants can only work in the U.S. with employer sponsorship.  

Unfortunately, among some U.S. employers, the misconception that employers must always sponsor immigrant job-seekers persists. In reality, a foreign national, whether they plan to immigrate or work temporarily in the U.S., can work for an employer without the need for sponsorship as long as they maintain employment authorization 

The confusion of these processes among U.S. employers may prevent them from seeking out immigrant employees because they imagine the process of hiring a foreign national to be much more than it often is. In reality, most immigrants who apply to jobs have already obtained employment authorization, meaning the employer need not take any additional steps to hire them besides what is necessary for a U.S. Citizen. 

The community-based nature of U.S. employment and social networks can also present a barrier to foreign-trained immigrants. Whereas a job-seeker trained in the U.S. may be able to reach out to their university’s alumni network or former internship colleagues, an immigrant job-seeker with a foreign degree may have difficulty building the same network despite having the same degree. This produces a negative feedback loop in which immigrant communities struggle to make connections with established U.S. networks that can lead to job opportunities that are commensurate with their level of education and experience. 


Barriers to U.S. employment hurt our economy.  

The barriers faced by foreign-trained immigrant job-seekers have ramifications for the U.S. economy and employment outcomes. Without making an effort to recognize foreign education and training, U.S. employers risk overlooking exceptionally qualified immigrant job candidates, meaning that immigrant communities continue to experience economic hardship. As a result, the U.S. economy will suffer, as qualified immigrant job-seekers across the country find themselves unemployed or underemployed due to a disparity in employers’ recognition of their foreign degree or their knowledge of the employment authorization process. 


We need to address these disparities head-on. 

To begin to address the disparities among employers in recognizing foreign education and understanding the employment authorization process, different actors from a variety of stakeholder groups can take action: 

Service providers and private funders can focus their attention on providing immigrant job-seekers the resources to bolster their candidacy for employment in the U.S. This may include financing a foreign degree evaluation or providing targeted English language courses to prepare them to confidently use industry terminology.  

Employers can educate themselves on the employment authorization process as well as foreign degree equivalencies. Furthermore, they can open their networks to immigrant job-seekers through steps such as participating in an informational interview or extending an invitation to an industry networking event for shared learning opportunities about core competency requirements and experience. They can also offer on the job training (OJT) for immigrant to obtain U.S. work experience in their respective field of interest. 


Competency-based hiring works! 

Lastly, employers in the U.S. can adopt skills-based hiring practices to deemphasize formal education in favor of transferrable skills. Specifically, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia advocates for hands-on instruction and mentorship, recognizing that skills-based hiring is part of a broader imperative toward diversity, equity, and inclusion among U.S. employers. These steps will begin to break down the barriers to finding employment in the U.S. among foreign-educated immigrant job-seekers.  

To address these barriers, The Welcoming Center’s International Professionals Program (IPP) is dedicated to providing foreign-trained immigrant job-seekers with the skills they need to apply for professional jobs in the U.S

*The term “foreign national” in immigration law refers to anyone who is not a national of the U.S., whether a person is an immigrant or a nonimmigrant. As the H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa, this term is used in conjunction with the H-1B process to describe employees in the U.S. who hold this specific visa. Holding H-1B status, however, does not preclude a foreign national from later immigrating to the U.S. by adjusting their nonimmigrant status through an employment or family-based process. 


We are currently seeking employers to become involved with our IPP professionals by participating in informational interviews, becoming a Fellowship Program (OJT) worksite, or learning about the Engaging Immigrant Talent initiative, which aims to provide tools for employers to implement inclusive hiring practices and foster diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace. To get involved, please contact Rochelle T. Cooks, Director of Employer Engagement at (215) 825-7767 or rochelle@welcomingcenter.org.

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