Panel Paper: Training and Advancement for the Immigrant Workforce

Friday, November 9, 2018
Marriott Balcony A - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Hamutal Bernstein and Carolyn Vilter, Urban Institute

While employers are voicing growing demand for workers with some post-secondary training, unfortunately, most U.S. workers are not able to access opportunities for training that would allow them to meet this demand and improve their prospects for economic advancement. While many express concern about this “middle skills gap” and are thinking about how to develop training that meets market needs, the conversation at the national and local level often has a massive blind spot: the key role that immigrant workers can play in filling this gap. Immigrants make up a large and crucial part of the U.S. workforce and support the vitality of local economies. They are employed at high rates; however, many are stuck in low-paid, low-skilled jobs, limited in their opportunities to pursue training and expand their English and technical skills, steps which might unlock better wages and career advancement. The research shows that immigrants are not accessing federal workforce development services, but not much is known about where immigrants are accessing basic skills and technical training to aid them in reaching better-paid, better-quality jobs and what the challenges and opportunities are around such training efforts. Our paper answers these questions by combining quantitative and qualitative data sources and exploring the experience of the immigrant workforce and the organizations that can and should support their upskilling.

We use the five-year American Community Survey (ACS) sample for 2011-2015 for an updated demographic profile of the immigrant workforce with national- and metropolitan-level statistics for the largest 100 metropolitan regions. We assign job skill level using Bureau of Labor Statistics classifications and explore the match between educational attainment and job level, differences between native- and foreign-born workers, and key demographic characteristics of the low- and middle-skilled workforce.

We complement this statistical picture with qualitative data collected through three site visits to Seattle, Dallas, and Miami. These cities each have a large low- and middle-skilled immigrant workforce and capture variation in terms of geography, industry mix, local context of immigrant reception, and workforce demographics like skill distribution, English language proficiency, and the ethnic and national background of immigrant workers. We conduct 31 semi-structured interviews, during which we elicit perspectives on the strategies and programs in place to reach immigrant workers, assets offered and barriers faced by immigrant workers, challenges faced by the service organizations, sources of funding, local economic and policy context including the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and other issues that can help us understand immigrants’ and organizations’ perspectives on training and advancement for this population. For each city, we identify organizations that are involved in workforce development issues and immigrant services: adult training providers including community colleges, school districts, and other ESL, GED, and technical training providers; immigrant-serving organizations and community-based organizations; and stakeholders from local government, the local Workforce Development Board, chambers of commerce or other economic development organizations, and philanthropy. We share insights and lessons learned through these interviews to provide a fuller picture of the immigrant workforce and opportunities for training and advancement.