What's In a Name? Racial Discrimination Still a Prominent Feature of the Canadian and U.S. Labor Markets

A 2009 study titled Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market conducted by the Department of Economics at the University of British Columbia suggests considerable employer discrimination against resumes which posses either ethnic names or foreign work experience. The findings of this study showed that English-named applicants with degrees from Canadian universities and Canadian work experience received a significantly higher rate of response than resumes with foreign names, foreign education, and international work experience.

Is this applicable in the United States? In Upwardly Global's experience, the answer is yes. A report titled Uneven Progress: The Employment Pathways of Skilled Immigrants in the United States published by Migration Policy Institute in October 2008 reveals that 1.3 million college-educated immigrants living in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed; working as taxi drivers, dishwashers, security guards or in other unskilled jobs. There are many barriers to workforce re-entry that immigrant professionals face in the U.S., including lack of professional networks and jobseekers' unfamiliarity with the U.S. job search process. However, the same conditions causing discrimination in Canada are likely at work in the U.S. as well, which is an implicit attitude or unconscious mental association between a target (such as "immigrants") and a given attribute (such as "poor communication skills"). This implicit attitude leads to an outcome that negatively impacts professionals with foreign education and work experience.

In the long-run this attitude and behavior, whether implicit or not, negatively impacts American companies and businesses because they miss the opportunity to hire highly-qualified immigrants. Data from the Manpower 2009 Talent Shortage Survey puts this argument into perspective: although the economy is not thriving and national unemployment is at 9.5%, 36% of employers in America report having difficulty finding sufficient talent to fill positions.

What can employers do? Immigrant inclusive hiring practices can be done with just a little focus and effort. For example, companies can train their employees to conduct culturally-competent interviews that focus on the immigrant's skills, knowledge, and experience. This practice will help create an awareness of the unconscious biases that may exist, which often lead recruiters or hiring managers to prejudge on the basis of names, foreign degrees, international experience, or different communication styles.

Immigrants comprise the fastest growing segment of the small business and consumer market. In addition, it is estimated that new immigrants and their children will account for 100% of U.S. workforce growth between 2010 and 2030. Together, this creates a business case to focus on the integration of foreign-born professionals into the American workforce today. And with countries like Singapore and the Netherlands taking aggressive steps to strategically attract and integrate foreign-born professionals into their economies, foreign professionals have more choices about where to take their talents.

Hiring a "non-traditional" candidate will always feel like a risk. After all, no one will blame the recruiter or hiring manager who hired the top student from a known US university that didn't work out, but if the candidate from the University of Uyo in Nigeria doesn't work out, the interpretation could be that the recruiter or hiring manager took too much risk in the hire.

Freedom, risk taking, and challenging boundaries has always been core American values and have often led to innovation and advancement. However, over the last several years, the United States has taken a disproportionate share of risk in the financial markets, the result of which has been the evaporation of wealth for many Americans and a decrease sense of financial security. Amongst the other adjustments we are making today to learn and recover from the harmful effects of such a significant imbalance, perhaps it is time to shift some of our risk taking and innovation to the human capital markets and see if we can create a richer society based on a new foundation of inclusion.

About Upwardly Global:

Upwardly Global is a national nonprofit organization with offices in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. Jane Leu founded Upwardly Global in 2000 to equip immigrant professionals with necessary skills to rebuild their career in the U.S. and help U.S. employers benefit from the hidden pool of immigrant professionals. To date, the organization has served more than 1,300 professionals from over 94 different developing countries. For further information about the organization, please visit www.upwardlyglobal.org.