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Spouses of high-skilled workers can now apply for jobs — and they're finding it's not easy

A woman works her keyboard looking at the screen in her office cubicle at an online dating website in Beijing on February 4, 2010. Cybersearching to find a partner is revolutionising how Chinese interact with the opposite sex, say users and experts, with state media reports having quoted estimates of online dating accounts in the hundreds of millions, and in a 2008 report aBeijing-based Internet research firm said China's online dating market was worth 44 million dollars that year and would surge past 100 million in 2011. AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
It's a tough labor market for most women who try to re-enter the workforce. This is what the spouses of high-skilled foreign workers are learning as they start applying for jobs, after being allowed to apply for work visas starting last May. These dependent spouses, many of them women, were until recently barred from working under U.S. law. Many are highly educated with job experience in their native countries.

Arti Pagare was thrilled earlier this year when she learned that she could work legally in the United States.

"I was was very hopeful, since I had good experience in my field," said Pagare, a former IT specialist from India, who lives in Simi Valley with her husband. "I thought that…it will be easy on me.”

Pagare is one of an estimated 100,000 spouses of high-skilled H-1B visa holders who recently became eligible to apply for work permits. These dependent spouses had long been barred from working in the U.S., but in May, the U.S. changed its policy to allow themto work legally. Many of them are women.

Pagare's husband, who is also in the tech field, has been the family's sole breadwinner for years, so she was eager to contribute to the family's income. Right away, she started sending out resumes.

Then, reality hit.

“I didn’t get any callbacks...I called them, just to check what was going on — and I realized that they wanted ongoing experience,” she said, saying that her time out of the work force was seen as a negative factor.

It's a rough welcome to the U.S. labor market for Pagare and dependent spouses like her, who are in the country on what's called an H-4 dependent visa. Many are as highly-skilled and educated as their husbands, with backgrounds in technology, engineering and other fields.

They're finding it's really tough to land a job after taking time off, intentionally or not.

"It’s common experience, particularly for women who have been out of the workplace," said Christopher Tilly, who directs UCLA's Institute of Research on Labor and Employment. "Employers want exactly what they want, and don’t always realize that people are adaptable, and people are able to learn.”

Like it or not, he said, there are certain prejudices that affect women trying to re-enter the U.S. job market, like questions about their loyalty to family over career. Women trying to get back into the tech business, like Pagare, face even tougher odds because the industry is male-dominated, Tilly said.

"It's not clear how their skills have held up out of the workforce. It's not clear what skills they bring," he said. "And the fact that they are women doesn't help in the tech sector."

Viji Masdi has both a tech and engineering background. She most recently worked in civil engineering. But that was 11 years ago, in India.

She wasn't planning for her family to stay in the U.S. so long. But they did. She kept herself busy raising kids, being active in school, volunteering for a mothers' club.

Now that she is allowed to work, she wants a job.

"It's kind of frustrating," said Masdi, who lives in Saugus, "because you don't know where to start, how to begin, what to do. So you feel totally directionless."

She's not as confident in her engineering skills as she used to be, and has contemplated moving into a different field, like working in mental health as a therapist.

Then again, "that's a lot of of money, and since I have already done my engineering, I'd have to put in another five or six years," Masdi said. "I don't think I'm ready for that."

Tilly said the best thing these new job seekers can do is network, including with one another.

"Women who have these H-4 visas who are in this country have some connections," he said. "They should work those connections."

They might also consider researching companies with a good track record of hiring women, he said. And patience will be necessary.

Arti Pagare is still sending out resumes. She' already brushed up on her skills online, but she's weighing taking classes to take it a step further.

"I'm still hopeful," Pagare said. "Maybe I can bag a job soon."