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Unemployed Immigrant Tech Professionals

by Yuliya Chernova, Apr 13, 2004
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For weeks after Natalia Mermelshteyn, an immigrant from western Ukraine, was laid off from her software testing job in downtown Manhattan in 2002, she would buy Russian language newspapers, open to the classifieds page, and cry. The papers advertised jobs as babysitters and caretakers for the elderly. “I thought I could do more. There was something better for me out there,” said Mermelshteyn, now 49 and still unemployed.

Mermelshteyn came to New York along with 126,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union Countries. Another 60,000 newcomers arrived from India and the Phillipines. Some two-thirds of these immigrants held bachelor’s degrees. Eager to earn a living, ambitious, and skilled, they readily plunged into the Information Technology field. They changed careers, took out education loans, and betting on their secure employment, made downpayments on houses while waiting for green cards.

As the dot com euphoria gave way to disillusionment, many wound up among the 20,000 Information Technology professionals in the city whose jobs were eliminated in the past two years.

“To lose a job is so much more painful for immigrants, because they have tried so hard to reach that level, to be a good employee,” said Van Le, director of the New York City Refugee Employment Program for the International Rescue Committee.

During the dot com era, IT jobs turned into such a fad among the Russian-speaking community that the Russians even came up with a slightly deragotory term that referred to all the freshly minted IT people: computerschiks.

Now only 15 percent of students of ASA Institute of Business and Computer Technology, where Mermelshteyn studied, pursue any computer-related degrees, while many of its old computerschiks are figuring out what to do next.

“You can’t truly eliminate the hurt, the pain, unless they get a better job with a better salary,” said Le, whose program counsels New York’s unemployed refugees and asylees, explaining the mechanisms of a free market economy that is new to many of them.

Pluses And Minuses For Immigrants Job-Searching

If in the boom years professional immigrant workers felt like they were assimilating, lately many say that New York no longer feels like home, thanks in part to a backlash after September 11th. Later the government imposed a tight cap on temporary work visas, called H1B visas, as waits for citizenships and green cards turned torturous.

Sarvjet Singh, who came to New York from the volatile Jammu Kashmir State in India in early 2001 and works as a software developer, lives in Flushing, Queens amidst many Indian immigrants. But the community is waning. Singh’s friends who were here on H1B visas were forced to go back home after lay-offs. Without them, “I feel very sad,” said Singh, 32, whose green card application is still pending.

The increased anti-immigrant sentiment limits the ability of immigrants to network. Operating within the immigrant community and lacking fluent English skills severely restricts the ability to raise capital of people like Alex Falin, an immigrant from Yalta, Ukraine, who lives in Brooklyn and has tried to open an offshore consultancy and a pharmacy in between his programming jobs.

Even inside ethnic communities relationships have not been supportive. Mermelshteyn found little congeniality in the all Russian-speaking work group at her old job where people’s protectiveness over their jobs caused them to be uncooperative, afraid she would learn more and turn into their rival.

Many immigrants find they cannot compete with their U.S. born counterparts especially in the tough economic times, either because of prejudice or inferior language skills.

Still, there are some things that actually count in immigrants’ favor.

Rafael Gutierrez, formerly of Manila, Philippines, said that being Asian is a plus in his job search. “It may be a stereotype, but if you are either Indian, Chinese, Filipino – Oriental, in general -- they think computers are a part of you.” Having graduated from a six-month course at Chubb Institute, Gutierrez works as the “IT dude” in a Manhattan nonprofit.

Le thinks the most important advantage immigrants have over the U.S. born professionals is their motivation to do well. After all, going back to their countries of birth holds little appeal. For people in their circumstances, he said, “you either float or you sink.”

Immigrants are also resilient people, having gone through pain and stress while immigrating.

And although there are reasons, financial and emotional, why moving again to pursue a job is hard for immigrants, it may be easier for them relocate than native New Yorkers, because they are not as attached to the city.

“I have made up my mind,” said Singh. “If I am laid off, I’ll go back to India for a year. And from there, anywhere. It could be Canada, Australia, or Germany.”

CAREER CHANGE

The alternative to a job search is a return to school, and many seem to be taking that alternative.

Some are pursuing medicine. Of course, in comparison to IT, it takes much longer to get a degree, the pay is lower, and the communication skills required are more demanding. Still, 65 percent of ASA students are pursuing medical careers.

Keeping in mind the four more years of repayment on his $14,000 Chubb tuition loan and that 80 percent of his classmates never found an IT job, Gutierrez also gave the medical profession a thought. It’s a popular field among the city’s Filipinos, the second highest earning immigrant group here.

The idea of another profession is boosting Mermelshteyn’s spirits as well. On advice of friends she recently joined a gym, “to clear my mind.” And after hearing from a doctor that medical offices need ultrasound technicians, she enrolled in the Institute of Allied Medical Professions. Conveniently, the school expanded to Brooklyn, and in 2002 its Web site’s homepage displayed a greeting in two languages only: English and Russian. About a third of Mermelshteyn’s class are Russian-speaking, the rest are high school graduates. She finds that she and her former compatriots do better in school, with help from their technical background. She also realized that when she briefly thought thirty years ago of going into medicine she may have been on to something. She likes her ultrasound classes.

“The last nine months of studying flew by in a flash,” said Mermelshteyn who is almost done with her theory classes and will be starting a six-month ultrasound training shortly. Meanwhile, without health insurance, she is not able to afford any regular check-ups.

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