Emigre Scholars Flunk Job Hunt : Education: Soviet scientists and mathematicians are often handicapped by poor language skills, age and are over-qualified.


Even as the number of Americans with advanced technical education is dwindling, thousands of emigre scientists and mathematicians from the Soviet Union are underemployed or on welfare.

Their problems, social workers say, are that they don’t speak English well, are middle-age and over-qualified, and many of them haven’t grasped the nuances of job-hunting in the United States.

“The majority are going to have to settle for jobs that are less than they thought they were capable of doing,” said Linda Ehrenreich, director of the Career Development Center at the Jewish Community Center here.


One Soviet couple the center has helped, Boris Kushner and his wife, Marina Kameneva, lived on welfare for a year while seeking employment.

Their backgrounds are stellar. Kameneva, 45, was a researcher investigating the fluid mechanics of blood at Moscow University. Kushner, 48, one of the few constructivist mathematics experts in the world, did research for the Moscow branch of the Soviet Science Academy.

Kameneva, still without work, said she is “waiting, waiting, waiting.”

Last fall, Kushner accepted a position teaching basic math to undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown.

Kushner, with a philosophical shrug, won’t admit disappointment with his underemployment. “So, it’s very good for the students,” he said.

His new job is closer to his field than those of many compatriots.

Anatoly Koblyakov of Newark, N.J., has 20 years experience as an engineer in the study of heat transfer. He spent a year looking for a job in the United States before becoming a part-time teaching assistant at an elementary school.

“I think it’s a common problem,” he said in a thick accent. Koblyakov recognized the recession and his age, 51, as barriers to his full employment.

The emigres are not the only victims. The United States may be the loser by not offering suitable work to the refugees who “bring expertise, a work ethic and a desire to achieve,” Ehrenreich said.

The excellence of science and math education in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is globally recognized. Meanwhile, the number of graduate students in math and science is declining as the U.S. college-age population shrinks, according to National Science Foundation projections.

“We are already relying on foreign-born people with degrees in these fields,” to fill industrial needs, foundation spokesman Alan Levitt said.

More than half of the engineering doctorates in the United States are held by foreigners, many of whom are Asians, he said.

In 1990, the United States accepted as refugees 50,000 Jews, ethnic Armenians and Pentecostalist Christians from the Soviet Union and 80,000 people from other nations, Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Duke Austin said. He said that 50,000 additional Soviets could arrive this year.

Dozens of organizations--no one knows how many--have sprung up in the last 15 years to match Soviet applicants with potential employers and to coach the refugees in the art of self-promotion.

“It’s across the nation. It’s in every major and not-so-major city,” Ehrenreich said.

One such organization is the International Center for Applied Industrial Research, based in San Jose, Calif. Its president, Vladimir Naraditsky, came from the Soviet Union in 1979, and he has definite opinions about what his fellow Soviets need to learn about American culture.

“These people do not know how to behave in interviews,” Naraditsky said.

He sets up mock interviews to give job-seekers an idea of what American employers expect--punctuality, for instance.

“In the Soviet Union the mentality of appointments does not exist. The time is not respected as it is in the United States. It’s not a big deal,” said Naraditsky, a professor of mathematics at San Jose State University.

The refugees learn quickly, he said. Some take so thoroughly to the American youth culture that they color their hair and hope that an interviewer won’t ask about age.

Gray hair may be concealed, but gray matter is another thing. An applicant’s advanced degrees may cause some interviewers to worry that if hired, the worker may not stay long with the company.

Rafael Rich, 62, of New York, ran into that problem when he moved from the Soviet Union in 1979.

“When I sent my resumes and books and articles, for 100 resumes I got 98 answers,” all negative, he said.

“I took out from my resumes all my titles. In 12 days I got a job” at $28,800 a year, Rich said. Now he has an even better job as a petrochemical mechanical engineer.

Rich is president of the Division for Soviet-American Scientists of B’nai Zion, a Jewish organization that lobbies corporations for jobs for Soviet refugees. It publishes a book of research papers written by its clients.

Even if a job applicant overcomes all the obstacles of language, age and cultural ignorance, an employer might not be able to interpret his or her resume. Soviet college degrees are not always equivalent to American ones, and it is sometimes difficult to compare American job titles to positions in Soviet industry.

To get around that, Ehrenreich’s center matches job-seekers with volunteer mentors--prominent professionals who evaluate the refugees’ skills.

Despite such difficulties here, many job-seekers said they still prefer life in America. In the Soviet Union a Jewish job candidate must be two or three times as good as a Russian, they said.

For example, Leningrad University would not hire computer scientist Michael Zackerovitch as a professor because of his religion.