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U.S. Senate Needs to Act to Increase Immigrants’ Workforce Skills

September is Workforce Development Month, an opportunity to recognize the vital influence that a skilled workforce has on the country’s economic competitiveness.

With fitting timing, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5587, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, by a 405-5 vote on Sept. 13. The National Immigration Forum applauds the overwhelming bipartisan support for this reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins Act).  Now, it is time for the U.S. Senate to act on reauthorizing the Perkins Act.

Career and technical education (CTE) programs build the skills of workers, including immigrants, to meet employers’ skills needs and grow our economy. In addition to high-skill occupations, CTE programs also prepare workers for occupations requiring “middle skills” — a higher level of education than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. Middle-skill occupations currently represent the biggest portion of the U.S. labor market and are projected to grow.

It is important to ensure that workers, including immigrants, have the skills to fill these jobs. According to data from 2012, about 36 million adults, including millions of immigrants, in the U.S. would benefit from upskilling by improving their literacy, numeracy and occupational skills through workforce training programs.

The Perkins Act is the primary federal funding source for secondary and postsecondary CTE programs. Such programs are critical to preparing youth and adults, including immigrants, for jobs in their local and regional economies. For instance, an immigrant high school student interested in the health care industry could enroll in a health sciences CTE program at her school. Through the program, she would be exposed to careers ranging from physician to hospital administrator to public health researcher, complete related courses and participate in an internship assignment.

An immigrant adult with a high school diploma interested in the energy field could enroll in a CTE program at his local community college to prepare for a career in solar energy, electronic technology or geographic information systems. He would be able to take related academic classes, develop critical thinking and communication skills appropriate for the industry and train on updated equipment in classes taught by professionals from that field. An immigrant with a degree in computer science from a foreign university could complete an information technology CTE program at her community college in order to obtain a certificate from a U.S.-based educational institution. (Please see “Perkins Act Reauthorization Would Help Labor Market, Including Immigrants” for more information on how CTE programs can prepare adult immigrants to meet employer needs.)

H.R. 5587 builds on advances in the CTE field as well as recent congressional efforts to modernize our nation’s workforce and education systems. Among other provisions, H.R. 5587 better aligns CTE programs, including the core indicators of performance, with the employment and training programs under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. This increases service integration, leading to reduced duplication of efforts. The legislation focuses on the critical role that employers should have in CTE programs through identifying skills needs and providing workplace learning opportunities. The legislation also encourages states to conduct occupational licensing reforms, which is important to maximizing the economic contributions of foreign-trained immigrants and refugees.

We urge the Senate to act quickly on reauthorization of the Perkins Act. Doing so is an important step to ensure that workers, including immigrants, have the skills they need to reach their full career potential and that employers have the talent they need to compete.

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