By: James Archer

James ArcherAt The ShareLingo Project in Denver, we see a lot of immigrants in our English and Spanish classes. We like to learn more about each other, so we ask what they do, and often we get responses like:

  • “In Mexico, I was a system’s analyst.”
  • “In Bolivia, I was a lawyer”
  • “In Peru, I was a musician”

When we hear this, we encourage the people to change their thinking, and to say, “I AM a system’s analyst. I AM a lawyer. I AM a musician”. Moving to this country doesn’t change what you are, any more than me moving to Costa Rica would make me not an Engineer.

Unfortunately, being able to WORK in one’s profession is often another matter. There are far too many professionals here in the USA (and, indeed, around the world – have you seen what is happening in Europe?) that are working in very basic jobs, rather than in their professions, and I believe that this is a terrible waste of talent.

In one of our ShareLingo classes here in Denver, I met Maria, a systems analyst that came to the United States from Mexico. When Maria moved here, she got a job cleaning hotels, and she told us that one day, a guest at the hotel asked her for a pillow. She didn’t know what a pillow was, but the woman just kept saying, louder and louder, pillow, Pillow, PILLOW! The closest word Maria had in her vocabulary was Pelo (hair) so, not knowing what else to do, she brought the guest a hair brush. That didn’t go well – for Maria, or the guest, or even the Hotel. Clearly, Maria is not stupid, but the guest, because of her frustration, made Maria feel inadequate. It gave her incentive to study hard, learn English, and get out of the hotel and back to computers.

But for some people, that’s not possible.

After ten years here in Denver, Blanca, a lawyer from Bolivia, still works the deli counter at Target. Blanca’s story is a little different than Maria’s. Like Maria, Blanca is working hard to learn more English. Her kids are all fluent in both English and Spanish now, and she was just blessed with her first granddaughter, so Blanca couldn’t be happier in that regard. But she knows that it is very unlikely she will ever become a lawyer here in the USA. Blanca is passionate about lots of causes, but can’t use her talents to address them. The time and expense needed to practice law in this country are just beyond her means. I think it’s a shame she couldn’t find work in the legal field, in spite of the enormous need for trained lawyers here in our country that understand the problems and can work with the immigrant communities.

Think about it. Suppose you are a Doctor, Plumber, Engineer, Welder, Systems Analyst, Nurse, or Teacher. Whatever it is, you’re good at it. Now, suppose that, for some reason, you decide (or are compelled) to move to a different country. Maybe it’s to be with family, or for health reasons, or you hate the government – whatever. But you move. And when you get to your new country, where you have such high hopes, you find that, due to lack of language skills, or because your credentials are not recognized, you can’t get a job within your profession. What would you do? Would you work in a deli? Would you clean hotels, or people’s houses?

To put a quick financial perspective on this idea, suppose your company hires a 100K/year civil engineer from Chile for a 20K/year-cleaning job. In my mind, that’s an 80K/year waste of talent.

I’m hope you will agree that we, as a society, MUST help immigrants learn English, and give them a path to work within their professions.

I am happy that, partly with the help of The ShareLingo Project, Maria and Blanca now speak English and are able to tell these stories and laugh about them.

Do you have a story like Maria or Blanca?

Did you, or your parents, or someone you know set aside a profession when you or they came here?

Or, if you’re from here, have you been to another country and tried to work in a professional job? Did you speak the language of that country?

Please join the discussion. Tell us your story.