Perkins Act Reauthorization Would Help Labor Market, Including Immigrants

Policy and Advocacy Associate

July 7, 2016

Today the House Committee on Education and the Workforce marks up an important bill for building the skills of workers, including immigrants, to meet the needs of employers and growing our economy.

The “Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act” would reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins Act). The Perkins Act is the main source of federal funding for secondary and postsecondary career and technical education (CTE) programs, and its reauthorization is important.

Occupations requiring “middle skills” — a higher level of education than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree — currently represent the biggest portion of the U.S. labor market and are projected to grow. Moreover, wages and salaries of some middle-skill occupations, such as aircraft mechanics and electricians, can actually exceed those of college graduates. Middle-skill workers such as dental hygienists, building instructors, computer support specialists and others may earn a median salary of more than $50,000. In 2012, middle-skill jobs accounted for 54 percent of all jobs in the U.S.

To address employers’ needs and grow our economy, it is important to build the skills of workers, including immigrants, to fill these jobs. CTE programs can help adult workers prepare for middle-skill jobs. About 36 million adults in the U.S. would benefit from upskilling by improving their literacy, numeracy and occupational skills through workforce training programs, according to data from 2012. Immigrants comprised one-third of adults with low literacy and one-quarter of adults with low numeracy skills. Furthermore, foreign-born individuals accounted for about 87 percent of the 22.8 million people who live in the U.S. and are considered limited English proficient.

Through CTE programs, adult workers have the opportunity to gain stackable credentials, which are “short-term credentials with clear labor market value.” Adult workers, including immigrants, face various barriers to completing a degree or credential program, such as family and financial obligations or language barriers. By earning stackable credentials, adult workers are able to build short-term occupational skills that would enable them to advance their careers in their chosen field, meet employers’ workforce needs, and building motivation and persistence toward completing longer-term educational goals.

Moreover, CTE programs offer foreign-trained immigrants an opportunity to earn a U.S. certificate or degree and gain work experience in the U.S. through work-based learning opportunities. As recent research shows, U.S. employers generally prefer American experience and training over experience or training abroad. About 1.6 million foreign-trained immigrants over 25 with a college degree are underemployed or unemployed. CTE programs can help these skilled immigrants refresh their education and gain work experience in the U.S., increase their marketability and improve their chances of finding a job in the field in which they have been trained. Maximizing the contributions of foreign-trained immigrants can help meet employers’ and a community’s needs, adding to our economic growth.

Perkins Act funding is also available for establishing noncredit CTE programs. Although these classes do not lead to a degree or certificate, they are a valuable tool for improving the skills of the U.S. workforce, including immigrants. Based on recent research conducted by the California Community College system, students who completed at least one course but less than one year of noncredit CTE education had a median wage gain of 13.6 percent, or $4,300.

Additionally, Perkins funds can be used for adult basic skills and English as a second language (ESL) classes that are integrated into the curricula of CTE programs. These types of programs, which may include contextualized ESL courses that focus on teaching English for specific occupations, can help accelerate the English language and occupational skills development of immigrants who have limited English proficiency and who are trying to enter the U.S. labor market.

To support U.S. competitiveness, it is necessary to build skills of workers, including immigrants. Moreover, as the U.S. foreign-born population is expected to grow by 85 percent by 2060, Congress should recognize the importance and impact of reauthorization of the Perkins Act on the development of immigrants’ skills to help fulfill current as well as future workforce needs of U.S. employers.