Workforce Training of Immigrants and Refugees: What Works?
This is part 1 of a series. Read Part 2
In the past six months, the U.S. has lived through the convergence of three crises: the worst pandemic in 100 years, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, and multiple incidents of police violence that triggered unrest in many cities as society attempted to reckon with longstanding racial disparities. These events have generated chaos and insecurity; and forced us to rethink how to live and work, how to educate ourselves and our children, and how to keep our families healthy and safe. However, while everyone feels unsettled, some communities face greater disruption than others. This imbalance aggravates existing disparities and challenges the ability of our entire country to rebound.
The most affected groups include native-born communities of color and immigrants and refugees. They are more vulnerable to COVID, generally have less access to medical care and fewer resources to pay for it. The economic hits hit them the hardest. Twenty percent work in industries most affected by the downturn, and many are not eligible for the emergency funds provided by the government. Those who do have jobs fill our “essential” workforce: e.g., home health aides, janitors, grocery store employees, and bus, metro and taxi drivers. If they don’t work, their families suffer, but we suffer too. They need a way back into the workforce, and a way up from their entry-level, subsistence jobs.
With the support of the World Education Services Mariam Assefa Fund, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation has been exploring how targeted training might help immigrants and refugees integrate into the economy and build career paths. Recognizing that this is a multi-faceted challenge requiring multi-faceted approaches, we recently convened two sessions with a brain trust of experts in not only workforce training and adult education, but immigration integration and finance as well. We included employers and employees from the private sector, the social sector, and government. During the first discussion, we aimed to understand what makes a workforce development program that is high in quality, reasonable to implement and likely to generate measurable impact – providing workers with skills needed by employers; and placing workers on the road toward higher quality, higher wage jobs. The participants’ diversity of experience generated a wide-ranging discussion and some best practices emerged:
- Engage key parties in designing the program. These parties include: workers, employers, training organizations, immigrant-support groups and funders. Incorporating input from everyone affected by a program increases its likelihood of success. Employers certify that the skills being taught are those for which they have jobs to fill; and it is important to include information and buy-in from the employers’ various stakeholders (e.g., management, human resources, C-Suite). Workers ensure the program will meet their needs with appropriate contextualized English language learning and life demands like child care.
- Invest in trusted intermediaries and foster ongoing connections among providers and immigrant groups to generate career pathways. Many of the training organizations noted that the insular nature of immigrant support groups limited their interactions, so spots in the programs remain empty. It makes sense to work with familiar intermediaries, such as community-based organizations, immigrants’ rights groups, and churches. Additionally, in the current climate, immigrants will be much more comfortable participating in something which has been “blessed” by a known party.
Bawi Za Muang fled Burma due to severe and increasingly threatening mistreatment by the military. After struggling to survive for many years without a home, Muang and his family arrived in Des Moines, Iowa in 2013, speaking no English. They persevered, taking English classes and driving lessons, and eventually, Muang found a job with Tyson’s Food. In several of its markets (including Des Moines), Tyson’s has solved the problem of an aging workforce by hiring from local refugee populations. Muang advanced at the company, earning higher wages and eventually buying a house. Along the way, he benefitted from Tyson’s partnership with EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center), a local refugee-led organization. EMBARC attunes Tyson’s to the real needs of its immigrant employees and provides services that help employees acclimate and thrive. In 2019, EMBARC’s Legal Navigator Program helped Muang and his wife obtain citizenship.
- Incentivize programs that enable immigrants and refugees to access “good” jobs, as opposed to any job. Success in the current system tends to be defined by outputs (number of program graduates, number of placements in jobs) rather than outcomes (wage growth, jobs with benefits, etc.). In addition to providing more to the workers, the immigrants will have more money to spend in the local economy and will pay higher taxes, both of which return value to society. Some new initiatives are trying to focus on outcomes, but the system also needs incentives that enable workforce organizations to support the immigrants in their path toward better jobs (e.g., funds for ongoing assistance, access to networks, etc.).
- Address digital literacy and digital access. Even before the pandemic heightened the need for facility with technology, digital skills were becoming important to almost all jobs (restaurant workers need to be able to enter orders electronically, much of healthcare uses technology, etc.). Immigrants are less likely to have access to the necessary technology or be able to afford broadband, limiting their ability to access training.
Maria Chavez has been studying English since 2018. She found it difficult to make progress because she didn’t have uninterrupted periods of time to go to class. When mobile-first learning company Cell-ED launched its Million Learner Challenge offering workers in low-quality jobs free access to its curriculum, she jumped at the chance. She listens to lessons over the phone, or receives them by text or message. ”It’s so practical because the class is always there.”
- Emphasize other transferable skills such as capacity with English, and customer relations, both central to many jobs, in addition to sector-specific training. Formalize certifications, badges or other means of validating skills learned to communicate progress to employers and the broader community.
- Bring the training to the workplace, including providing employees with the tools they need to participate. This ensures that the training includes the most relevant skills, and acknowledges the challenges immigrants face in trying to build training into a day that may already include more than one job, as well as family care responsibilities.
Leonor, a janitor at Water Garden business park in Santa Monica, CA, recently completed the Infectious Disease Certification Program; a partnership among the nonprofit, Building Skills Partnership, her labor union, SEIU-USWW, and her employer, Allied Universal. She was grateful that her employer and instructors were committed to investing in her education at work. “It helps to have a supervisor who is very involved in the entire process,” she says. “One thing that stood out to me was that our supervisor was taking the class like everyone else, as if he was one of our peers.” After the training, Leonor was able to explain to a building tenant at Water Garden the changes that she and her coworkers are making to help mitigate community spread.
- Create apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship programs. Partner with employers, trade unions or other relevant entities to develop a clear pathway to more stable employment.
Forrest Sebba was born in the Philippines and had struggled to secure steady work in the U.S. As a transgender person, he was subject to discrimination and suffered from depression. Cooking gave him joy, as it brought back memories of his grandmother. The Los Angeles Hospitality Training Academy’s Registered Culinary Apprenticeship Program, provided in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor and the State of California, taught the skills he needed, allowed him to build confidence, and introduced him to potential employers. Before completing the apprenticeship, he secured a job as a union cook with the Loews Hollywood Hotel.
- Build wraparound supports acknowledging the multiple demands on an immigrant’s life. These may include stipends to cover childcare, loaned tablets to trainees that don’t have access to computers, transportation vouchers for in-person training, and more.
There is no single solution to the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee workers (and aspiring workers). Furthermore, because of their tight community bonds, there shouldn’t be a single solution: programs must be culturally sensitive and aligned with the needs of the local community. That said, the lessons highlighted here can be applied toward building effective programs that generate opportunity for immigrants and refugees and unleash a workforce that will contribute to our wellbeing. Our second meeting with the group drilled into financing considerations.
Betsy Zeidman is a Fellow in the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center
Cristina Alaniz is a Student Analyst in the Fair Finance team with the Beeck Center.