By Nsiona Nguizani

I have spent time over the last few months helping New Mainers who have received their work papers look for their first jobs in the United States. This has led me to think about how immigrants can best generate income in America. Most of us go for blue collar jobs, but these can be hard to land, for a variety of reasons. I’d like to recommend an alternative path that some people might like to follow.

Like most immigrants, I came here with a couple of master’s degrees that did not transfer to the U.S. So I had to begin by getting myself new degrees that are recognized here. Meanwhile, I worked minimum wage jobs.

Before immigrants come to the U.S., they dream of an easier life here than back home. In Angola, where I come from, people don’t have a lot of opportunities, and immigrants from Angola see moving to America as a way to improve their lives. Back home, some people struggle to earn just a dime an hour.

When people first arrive here, they are in survival mode. After a while, they achieve some normality, and later on (hopefully) they begin to thrive. I want to share my own, firsthand experiences as an immigrant trying to make a living in the U.S.

Like most immigrants, I came here with a couple of master’s degrees that did not transfer to the U.S. So I had to begin by getting myself new degrees that are recognized here. Meanwhile, I worked minimum wage jobs. I wish that when I arrived, I had come with some specific, practical skills that everyone is looking for here, such as carpentry, house painting, floor refinishing, appliance repairs, landscaping, hair stylings, mechanics, or cooking.
Back home, educated people did not do this kind of practical, skilled work. We had maids or caretakers who took care of it for us, often for no extra pay. Well, here in the U.S., people will pay a lot of money for someone who knows how to do these jobs for them, while they conduct business or do their own jobs. Those immigrants who come to the U.S. without an education, but with a skill, might actually be able to go farther than others working nine-to-five jobs.

Having practical skills opens the door for people to create their own business, where they are the boss, and benefit from the profits. Being an entrepreneur is an important way to thrive and help grow Maine’s economy at the same time. And people don’t have to build their businesses alone. A number of nonprofits provide assistance to those wanting to launch start-ups. Or, people can hire others to help with the business part of things.

What I have learned is that value determines cash flow in the U.S. economy. Whoever has the most value to offer will get the most income. To make it in America, you need to add value to the U.S. economy. In fact, the truth is that in any part of the world, this reality is the same. You have to create or add value to an economy in order to make money.

In the U.S., degrees often don’t transfer, and until someone has worked their way through the U.S. education system, they will usually have to settle for a job at the bottom of the economic ladder, earning minimum wage. At first, the money will seem like a lot, compared to what people were making back home. But here, minimum wage will not do more than feed you, and maybe provide somewhere to live – and that’s it. There will be no extra for earning advanced degrees, supporting people back home, or investing either here or back home. That’s the reason it’s especially important for immigrants to think about what practical skills they have.

I recommend realizing the value of those skills, networking, looking for reliable help, and starting a business. This is one way to achieve your goals, your dreams, and maybe help people back home at the same time. So be trustworthy, earn a living, make a profit, invest, and let your money work for you.

Nsiona Nguizani is the president of the Angolan Community of Maine. He arrived in the U.S. in 2012, and is now a permanent resident. In Angola, he built a successful career as a project manager for organizations such as UNICEF, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the European Union. Before moving to the U.S. he was the national representative of Comité d’Aide Medicale and traveled between offices in Paris and Luanda. When he arrived in the U.S., he was obliged to start all over again, and earned degrees in Accounting and Economics. He is currently employed as cultural broker for the City of Brunswick.