Preparing Immigrants to Reach Their Career Potential is a Win-Win

Policy and Advocacy Assistant Director for Skills and Workforce Development

May 2, 2016

By 2020, the nation is projected to be short 7.5 million workers, and many industries are concerned about skills gaps. The United States’ 42 million immigrants make rich economic and social contributions to communities across the country, but they can do more to help address these worker and skill gaps. Immigrants want to work, but many need opportunities to develop their skills or apply their experience here. Preparing immigrants to meet the workforce needs of businesses and reach their potential is a win-win – businesses gain the talent they need to compete; immigrants and their families have increased opportunities; and, ultimately, our communities and country flourish.

The immigrant workforce is dynamic. Many of today’s immigrants are highly educated — 41 percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree — but more than 1.7 million skilled immigrants are under- or unemployed. Many immigrants have little formal education and face barriers similar to other low-skilled workers – 23 percent of recent immigrants have not completed high school, and immigrants comprise one-third of low-skilled adults and one-quarter of adults with low numeracy skills. Moreover, while some immigrants are fluent in English, 87 percent of the country’s limited English proficient population are foreign born.

As workforce leaders address the urgent needs of businesses, it is important to ensure that immigrants are included in the solutions. For example, nearly 24 percent of community college students have an immigrant background, making community colleges a key partner in immigrant education. Community colleges offer a range of non-credit and credit offerings, flexible schedules and admission policies, and programs that support immigrants. For example, community colleges can assist adult learners, including immigrant professionals, to get credit for prior learning so they can more quickly obtain their degree while saving time and money. Also, they can partner with adult education providers to develop programs that help immigrants who are learning English speed-up their language acquisition while developing skills to succeed in postsecondary education and employment.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) presents Workforce Boards and American Job Centers with new opportunities to prepare immigrants for careers, including: 1) adults who are basic skills deficient, including those learning English, now have priority for career and training services under the title I adult formula program; 2) participants in the title I adult and dislocated worker formula programs can improve English language skills while enrolled in other training activities; and 3) youth learning English that meet other eligibility requirements can qualify for the title I youth formula program. (For more information, please see the National Immigration Forum’s policy brief, Preparing Immigrant Job Seekers to Reach Their Full Potential: Opportunities for Local Workforce Boards under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.)

Community- and faith-based organizations have extensive experience with immigrants by providing services such as childcare, transportation, translation, English language instruction, job search assistance, and training. Partnering with these organizations can ensure immigrants have access to supportive services so that they can successfully enter and retain employment.

Also, immigrants proudly serve in the United States military, gaining job skills and experience. More than 114,600 immigrants were serving as of June 30, 2009. Similar to other veterans, immigrant service members leaving the military need support transitioning to the civilian workforce, including transferring their military skills to civilian ones.

These are only some examples of workforce policies and strategies that create opportunities for job seekers and workers, including immigrants, to thrive. By partnering with businesses and with each other, workforce leaders can leverage their expertise and resources to address the talent demands of businesses and ensure that immigrants and others reach their potential and maximize their contributions to keep the United States globally competitive.

This article also published in the April 2016 monthly newsletter for the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals, NAWDP Advantage, 29(4), 5.