BlackBerry in hand, Tek Rimal counts the minutes as he rides the bus from his job at BNY Mellon to his Bellevue apartment. Like many young parents, Mr. Rimal and his wife, Chandra, tag-team the care of their son, Anuj, with precision timing. Mr. Rimal rushes home from his day shift so his wife can work a 4-to-midnight stint at Rivers Casino.
Like many Pittsburghers, they rely on family to fill in the occasional gaps. Two of Mr. Rimal's brothers and one of Chandra's live in their building. The extended family shops and socializes together, often taking the bus to a favorite ethnic food store.
After 19 years in a Nepali refugee camp and only one year in the United States, Mr. Rimal, a 33-year-old native of Bhutan, is a check-processing clerk at BNY Mellon. But that's not his only job. He cooks 20 hours a week at a neighborhood Thai restaurant and picks up translation jobs with Catholic Charities. Armed with a Pennsylvania driver's license, he's saving for a family car.
The saga of an immigrant's hopeful journey, hard work and readjustment to a new life in America is a Pittsburgh meme, within memory for many families and echoed by churches and fraternal halls. But in 21st-century Pittsburgh, his story is highly unusual -- especially compared with cities of similar size and demographic makeup.
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Census data show the Pittsburgh metro region dead last among 15 peers in foreign-born population. With 73,443 foreign-born citizens, the region has half the international population of Charlotte, N.C., which has 1 million fewer residents. Pittsburgh's foreign-born population is a fifth that of Detroit and 13 percent the international population of Philadelphia, both more populous Metropolitan Statistical Areas.
But recent Brookings Institution analysis reveals that the region is another kind of outlier:
Though only 3 percent of the region's residents are foreign born, they comprise the most highly skilled immigrant group in the entire country, with a concentration of expertise in science and engineering. Like Mr. Rimal, more than 53 percent (30,542) hold a bachelor's degree or higher.
The two distinctions suggest that Pittsburgh has completed its transition to an "eds and meds" economy, driven by the universities and health care industry, but has yet to find the robust growth across sectors that would pull more immigrants to the region.
Many of Pittsburgh's peer regions face the same dilemma. The Brookings report noted the "very high concentration of high-skilled immigrants in older industrial metro areas in the Midwest and Northeast such as Albany [N.Y.], Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Syracuse [N.Y.]." The ratio of highly skilled immigrants for Detroit and Milwaukee, other benchmark regions, are equally strong.
A recent Fiscal Policy Institute study of the issue correlates the two phenomena. "It's not so much that metro Pittsburgh has a very large number of high-skilled immigrants as that immigration overall is comparatively low," concludes report author David Dyssegaard Kallick. "In a booming metro area, both higher- and lower-skilled immigrants will be part of the economic picture."
Viewed through the lens of long-term economic growth, Pittsburgh's blue-chip immigrants are an unquestioned asset. But its future strengths may not rely solely on the STEM researchers, high-tech entrepreneurs and medical experts, but on the families now struggling to achieve a foothold in the region. The Brookings Institution report, titled "The Geography of Immigrant Skills," notes that nationally, many highly educated immigrants like Mr. Rimal are underemployed.
As the region attempts to implement a strategy to open its doors to newcomers, it also faces the challenge of creating an infrastructure that eases their entry.
A new effort by Vibrant Pittsburgh, founded in 2010 to promote diversity, attempts to find the common needs of stem-cell researchers and indigent refugees. The organization's nascent Welcome Center envisions a portal for all newcomers.
Melanie Harrington, Vibrant Pittsburgh's director, ticks off the shared priorities.
"There are similar issues," she says, "employment, trailing partner connections, sitters and schools, housing, translation and interpretation skills for those with limited English." She sees the Welcome Center as a means of linking new arrivals with existing services.
Most newcomers rely on word of mouth as they orient to a new city, and Tek Rimal is no exception. Established Bhutanese friends offered advice and connections, including Mr. Rimal's new job at BNY Mellon. Though arriving only in the past few years, these immigrant families are finding Pittsburgh to be affordable, safe and welcoming.
A second wave of Bhutanese immigrants is moving to the region from other arrival points in the United States, boosting their numbers to an estimated 2,500 by early 2012. The reason is simple, says Mr. Rimal: "There are lots of jobs here," he explains, citing the region's stable economy.
In the debate on which immigrants can ultimately benefit the region, the unusual question arises: Can the Bhutanese save Pittsburgh?
Though their numbers are relatively small, refugees have helped Pittsburgh's foreign-born population increase by 18.5 percent since 2000. (The national growth rate was 26.5 percent.) An Allegheny Conference analysis of the decade reported that the Pittsburgh MSA outpaced the nation in growth among people born in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in North America.
While Latino immigration increased dramatically, Hispanics still represent only 1.3 percent of the metro population. The Asian influx is considerably larger.
In 2010, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey reported that the number of Asian immigrants in the metro area grew over the decade by 54 percent, to 33,050, surpassing the number of those arriving from Europe. In 2000, the largest number of migrants came to the area from Italy -- 7,191 or 12.7 percent of the total, the Allegheny Conference reports. By 2010, Italy had fallen to third place, trailing India (10,915 or 10.2 percent) and China (7,897 or 7.1 percent).
Growth in the number of Asian immigrants is a well-documented national trend. In a report for the Brookings Institution titled "Immigrants in 2010 Metropolitan America: A Decade of Change," authors Jill Wilson and Audrey Singer noted that more than 3 million Asian-born immigrants comprised over a third of the total increase in the foreign-born population. By 2010, slow-growth Rust Belt cities saw the overlapping effects. New migrants were not only more likely to be Asian, but more likely to be well-educated.
"In 2010, 27 percent of immigrants had a bachelor's degree or higher, whereas 24 percent did in 2000," write Ms. Wilson and Ms. Singer.
Pittsburgh, and particularly its major research universities, has attracted a disproportionate share of those highly skilled internationals. More than 9,000 foreign students are enrolled in Western Pennsylvania institutions. Global Pittsburgh estimates that two-thirds attend Carnegie Mellon University (3,853) and the University of Pittsburgh (2,607). The two universities also pull international faculty. At CMU, 30 percent (423 of 1,385) faculty are foreign born or permanent U.S. residents. At Pitt, 21 percent of faculty, research and professional staff are foreign born.
University faculty and researchers are generally exempt from the caps on temporary H-1B visas. Each year, an additional 20,000 international graduates of U.S. institutions receive those visas for "specialty occupations." The liberal policies have opened doors for roughly 300,000 internationals and are the major reason that the U.S. has seen the recent influx of highly skilled immigrants.
Once internationals arrive as students, they often stay on to found new companies. According to the Kaufmann Foundation, 53 percent of the immigrant founders of U.S.-based technology and engineering companies completed their highest degrees in U.S. universities. That potential for new jobs has galvanized all of Pittsburgh's benchmark peers to organize international marketing efforts, from Boston World to Global Detroit to Global Pittsburgh.
"The challenge is that we're not the only region that's attractive," says Ms. Harrington, of Vibrant Pittsburgh. "We must continue to promote the fact that we are here. We want to speed up the trend."
City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, daughter of a Polish immigrant, doesn't want the elite to be the sole focus of Pittsburgh's efforts to increase diversity.
"We see a lot of focus on high-skilled immigrants. That's a great thing. But lots of refugees settled here and also need our support. We might have the next high-tech entrepreneur in this group, but unless we provide English language services and connections to larger resources, we may not see that talent emerge," says Ms. Rudiak, whose council district includes Carrick, where many recent immigrants have settled. "It would be great to find a way to connect high-skilled entrepreneurs and organizations with refugees -- and the same with the Hispanic community."
Christine H. O'Toole is a journalist living in Mt. Lebanon (www.christinehotoole.com). First Published May 27, 2012 4:00 AM