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Underemployed immigrants: A plug for Maine's 'brain drain'?

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Underemployed immigrants: A plug for Maine's 'brain drain'?

PORTLAND — Sally Sutton is working on what she believes is a win-win proposition for Maine.

Since December, Sutton has served as program coordinator for the New Mainers Resource Center, a two-year pilot project to help skilled, foreign-trained professionals pursue their former careers here in their adoptive country. She estimates there are hundreds of immigrants with professional degrees in the greater Portland area who cannot work due to barriers of language or licensing.

They are doctors, nurses, pharmacists, engineers, teachers and computer scientists who are unemployed or underemployed. In a state where the buzzword has long been "brain drain," the newly arrived Mainers provide an opportunity to stem the tide, Sutton said.

"As a state, we need these people. We are old, we're aging out of the workforce," she said. "They are who we need for our workforce now. And if they're better off, we're better off."

The effort will be the subject of a free workshop on Monday, March 24, from 9-11:30 a.m., at the Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. Participants should enter the library from Elm Street.

The workshop will feature guest speakers from the Welcome Back Initiative and Upwardly Global, two similar programs from elsewhere in the United States. The event is open to employers, educators, policymakers, licensing boards, skilled immigrants and the community at large.

"A big part of this (effort) is finding the U.S. employers who are willing to mentor these professionals, to take them in as volunteers, as interns and help them make that transition into the U.S. workforce," Sutton said.

As a percentage of the population, immigrants in southern Maine are younger and have higher skill levels than the native-born Maine population, according to a 2013 report by the Immigration Policy Center. Maine's 1st Congressional District has a total population of 670,000, of whom 26,000 are immigrants. About 20 percent of those immigrants hold graduate or professional degrees, versus about 15 percent of native-born Mainers.

Sutton said it's difficult to know how many foreign-trained professionals are working outside their fields, but she said the number is probably growing.

Late last year, the New Mainers Resource Center opened at Portland Adult Education (site of the former Cathedral Grammar School) at 14 Locust St. The center offers career guidance, case management and employer networking, and provides English courses tailored to specific professions, such as health care.

Through a team approach with Portland Adult Education, Sutton helps develop short-, medium- and long-term goals for new Mainers.

"My goal is to help them figure out how to use their skills as soon as possible and to the greatest extent possible," she said.

Shorter-term goals are especially helpful for former physicians, who have the longest road back to their careers, Sutton said. The language and licensing barriers, combined with a shortage of residency programs, can add several years to the effort, so Sutton often encourages former physicians to become physician assistants or nurse practitioners – careers that have similar scopes of practice, but require less time in classrooms and residencies.

One of them is Abdul Qani, a 37-year-old former doctor.

Four months ago, Qani moved to Westbrook from Afghanistan with his wife and three children. Qani graduated as a physician in 2004, practiced for one year, then took a job as a translator for the U.S. military.

He's now pursuing a career as a physician assistant through University of New England. Although he's a strong English speaker, Qani takes a class in health care-related English at the resource center alongside students from Burundi, Croatia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Iraq and Rwanda.

In the meantime, he's looking for work as an interpreter.

Qani said it's inherently frustrating to spend so much time and effort re-learning his skills, but it's also fair and appropriate that foreign-trained physicians be trained to U.S. standards.

"These are the standards, and you have to meet them," he said.

Malual Mabur is another former doctor who is working his way back into the field. He has a goal of returning within two years.

"It's not easy," the Portland resident said. "I'm trying to sit down and study, but it's really hard. Time-wise, it's really difficult."

Regaining his credentials will take a lot of time and money, Mabur said. To put in an earnest effort, he would have to study for up to eight hours a day, which is difficult with a full-time job, a wife in her second-year of a nursing program, and three young children.

"If you have time, everything is possible," he said. "But if you have a family, a job, social commitments and everything, it makes it very difficult."

Mabur, 37, practiced internal and general medicine for seven years in Sudan, the United Kingdom and Jordan.

Four years ago, Mabur moved to the U.S. after a family tragedy. He now works for the city as a health promotion specialist, working with other newcomers to help them find health care. He estimates that he makes about a third of the salary he could make as a doctor.

Mabur said he enjoys the work he's doing now, but it's not the same as working directly with patients.

"It's my passion," he said. "It's my calling."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.