Supporting economic mobility

May 11, 2021Articles
A dental hygenist

In Pittsburgh, 58% of foreign-born adults hold a college degree—far above the national average of 31 percent for all Americans. The U.S. has long been a sought-after destination for educated immigrants due to a robust economy, world-class healthcare facilities, and opportunities for entrepreneurship.

Immigrants and refugees are vital to the economic vitality of our region and our country, but they face many barriers to employment, with many working in jobs that don’t match their educational level. While English language proficiency can be one barrier, so is the credentialing process.

Glory Christian, a Literacy Pittsburgh student, has been working on obtaining her nursing credential for two years. She held a variety of nursing positions in India but, despite her education and experience, she is currently working as a patient care technician at a local hospital, providing basic care and assisting medical staff.

“There are lots of steps to the process,” Glory explains. “Do the application. Get this certificate. Call them and sit on hold—once for two hours. So much waiting.”

Glory finally got permission from the Pennsylvania Board of Nursing to sit for the licensing exam. She is scheduled to take it on July 29th and, upon passing, she will finally be eligible to seek work in her chosen career.

“Most of our students decide to change careers because they cannot obtain their required documents or the process is way too time consuming, expensive, and requires them to go back to school for the last few years again and do residencies over,” explains Andrea Horton, Literacy Pittsburgh’s Workplace Skills Manager.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to examine the credentialing process for immigrants to the United States. The health care sector was already facing worker shortages and disparities in accessing care. According to World Education Services, six states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York—implemented stop-gap measures so that international medical graduates could assist with patient care. These ranged from granting temporary medical licenses to temporarily reducing residency requirements.

Recently, Pennsylvania Representative Aaron D. Kaufer (R-Luzerne) introduced HB 1947 aimed at seeking to update international medical graduate requirements and reduce one barrier to licensure for immigrants. Currently, graduates of U.S. and Canadian medical schools must successfully complete two years of training in order to apply for a medical license in Pennsylvania while international Medical Graduates must complete an additional year, for a total of three years of residency training, before they can apply for that same license.

While pressures in the healthcare field create a particular urgency, Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs provides administrative and legal support to 29 professional and occupational licensing boards and commissions, overseeing such fields as cosmetology, engineering, and real estate.

Recognizing the unique challenges for immigrants and refugees, the state is seeking input from members of the immigrant, refugee, and asylee community who work in a field that requires an occupational license or has applied for a license. 

The survey, which is open through July 2021,  captures the experiences of New Pennsylvanians seeking occupational licensure and surveys participants on topics such as education, employment, language access, and the overall application process. Feedback will help the state develop recommendations to reduce barriers for new Pennsylvania residents seeking a career in a licensed profession. If you or someone you know is an immigrant seeking professional licensure, please consider completing the survey.

As neighbors, business owners, taxpayers, and workers, immigrants, and refugees are an integral part of Pennsylvania’s economic vitality. In 2018,

  • Pennsylvania residents in immigrant-led households had $24.6 billion in spending power (after-tax income).
  • Immigrant business owners accounted for 10 percent of all self-employed Pennsylvania residents in 2018 and generated $1.2 billion in business income.
  • Immigrant-led households in the state paid $6.9 billion in federal taxes and $3.3 billion in state and local taxes.

When immigrants and refugees thrive, our community thrives. Literacy Pittsburgh is proud to help immigrants and refugees in our region pursue their career goals and share their talents and expertise.


Literacy Pittsburgh (formerly Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council) helps create better lives through learning. Recognized as a national leader in adult and family literacy, Literacy Pittsburgh is the largest provider of adult basic education in Allegheny and Beaver Counties. Last year, Literacy Pittsburgh helped more than 4,000 individuals acquire the skills needed to reach their fullest potential in life and participate productively in their communities. Literacy Pittsburgh provides free, personalized instruction in workforce readiness, high school diploma test preparation, digital literacy, English language learning, math, reading, and family literacy through one-to-one and small class instruction. Founded in 1982, it serves local adults through numerous neighborhood locations and its Downtown Pittsburgh Learning Center.       

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