English language programs help immigrants prepare for jobs

Policy and Advocacy Associate

July 27, 2017

English language skills are among the most important prerequisites to being able to reach one’s full career potential in America. Nearly 22.8 million people in the U.S. were limited English proficient (LEP) in 2013, of whom 87 percent were immigrants. Contextualized English language programs, integrated education and language-training programs offer new approaches to preparing immigrants for career advancement and increased integration.

These programs help participants build a vocabulary that is specific to an industry or employer. Integrated education and training programs allow participants to build basic skills, including English, and occupational skills concurrently by combining adult education and technical skills training. Such approaches enable immigrants to accelerate their skills development and get a job or advance in a career, saving time and money and helping to fill employers’ needs.

About 32 percent of the nation’s employers reported difficulties filling jobs in 2015. Middle-skill jobs, which are defined as requiring more education than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree, currently represent the largest pool of jobs in our labor market. As U.S. demographics change and more people in the workforce retire, helping immigrants and refugees build their skills is critical so they can fill growing skills gaps, advance our economy and reach their full career potential.

Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce

Here at the National Immigration Forum, Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce has shown promise. In partnership with the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education and Miami Dade College, this project provides contextualized English language instruction for frontline retail workers through local community colleges, at the worksite or on campus.

These retail workers represent three grocery store chains: Kroger in Houston, Publix in Miami, and Whole Foods in the greater New York City area and Houston. Training is delivered in person and virtually, through a new custom application accessible on desktop computers and mobile devices. The curriculum incorporates vocabulary and concepts relevant to the retail industry, such as customer service, store safety, technology and team communication.

Workers and employers alike have identified significant benefits to participating in the program. In the first year, the vast majority of participants — 80 percent — demonstrated an increase in English language skills. Moreover, 53 percent of participants expressed that they had “improved a lot” in their understanding of spoken English, 90 percent reported being on track for improving communication skills both at and outside of work, and 95 percent indicated that their improved English skills helped them do their job better.

Within the first twelve months, participants also experienced career advancement after completing the training: 20 percent received promotions in Miami, 19 percent in Houston and 11 percent in New York City. Additionally, across all sites, 79 percent of participants reported being on track for a promotion. And 88 percent of employer partners reported that as a result of participants’ increase in language skills, they saw improvement in store productivity, quality of work, reduced time per task and lower employee turnover. All participants were still employed 60 days after the conclusion of training. These improvements reduced the turnover-associated cost of recruiting and training new workers.

The project’s second year of training, which built on the success of year one, just concluded. With a revamped curriculum and improved technology tools, the project has assisted nearly 1,000 retail employees to achieve the skills they need to reach their fullest potential and unlock career pathway opportunities.

Other Programs

Elsewhere, the LDS Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City is providing integrated education and language training. One of its goals is to “provide job skills training and English language classes to refugees seeking to gain employment to help support themselves and their families.”

The program started in October 2009 as a partnership in which the Utah Department of Workforce Services and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each contributed funding and recruited participants. Through the program, about 150 associates, or participants, receive about 12 months of training and job placement assistance. Associates also receive four hours of intensive work training and four hours of language skills training five days a week. Associates work with job coaches, English teachers, job developers and other volunteers to develop the skills needed to obtain employment.

The evaluation of the program’s first year, 2010, revealed that almost 60 percent of associates found full-time employment after an average of 11.2 months in the program, and nearly all of these positions offered benefits. Furthermore, almost 88 percent of associates made at least one level gain in English, and 58 percent made two or more level gains. In 2016, 64 percent of associates found a full-time position after about 8.6 months in the program.

In Seattle, the Ready to Work initiative was designed for immigrants, refugees and others who face significant barriers to learning English and gaining employment. It was created in partnership with the Seattle City Council, three city agencies and a group of stakeholders. This innovative program combines English language proficiency instruction, digital literacy training, job skills development and case management to prepare immigrant and refugee students to enter or advance in the workforce.

To allow for more personalized instruction, students learn in small groups through multilingual resources including video, visuals and storyboards. They also get a chance to develop career skills through project-based learning and problem-solving tasks. Through a strong relationship with selected employers, the program offers experience-based career exploration, including visits to local work sites, practice interviews and job fairs.

In 2015, the first year following its launch, 22 students — including Ethiopians, Eritreans, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Somalians, Chinese, Guatemalans, Thai and Cambodians — completed the program. While results of the first evaluation of this program have not yet been released, its design is promising.

Integrated education and training programs are a helpful tool for immigrants participating in adult education programs and interested in beginning and growing a career in a wide range of industries. But that’s not all. By 2020, estimates suggest that the U.S. economy will have a shortage of 7.5 million workers across various sectors and skill levels. Moreover, in the next 40 years, immigrants and their children are projected to account for all of the growth in the U.S. labor force.

With changing demographics, job shortages and widening skills gaps, workforce programs that prepare immigrants for middle-skill jobs are crucial for ensuring the continued growth of our economy. Contextualized English language training and integrated education and training models are emerging not a moment too soon.