The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 10, 2015

Let’s engage employers in immigrant integration

August 10, 2015

America’s labor competitiveness relies heavily on immigrant workers. In 2013, 17 percent of workers ages 18 to 64—roughly 24 million people—were immigrants. An even larger proportion (44 percent) of workers without a high school diploma are immigrants. In industries such as landscaping, apparel manufacturing, and animal slaughtering and processing, more than one-third of workers are foreign-born. Among medical and life science professionals, 43 percent are foreign-born.

At the height of immigration in the 1900s, many employers participated in the integration of immigrant workers through such services as citizenship education, English language instruction, and work safety programs geared toward the new Americans. We are now seeing an equally significant inflow of immigrants. Will employers step up in the same way and contribute to the integration of immigrant workers in their new home country?

Why do employers engage in immigrant integration?

In my study focusing on immigrant-integration practices in the workplace, I reviewed the research evidence and interviewed employer, immigrant, and workforce organizations. I found that some employers recognize the need to get involved in immigrant integration to better take advantage of the talents of their immigrant workers, guard against labor scarcity, generate a managerial class from within, and gain goodwill from an increasingly diverse customer base.

For some employers, immigrant integration practices fit well within a broader set of business practices in which workers are central for successful business performance. For workers, having these services in the workplace makes them more accessible and convenient. And the peer support from coworkers boosts success.

What can employers do?

My study unveiled a variety of ways employers are engaging in immigrant integration through workplace practices, including the following examples.

  • Citizenship services: Some workplaces are offering naturalization classes and orientations. Employers are also providing loans and matching funds for citizenship fees and accommodating workers’ schedules so they can participate in classes.
  • English-language instruction: Employers have offered English-language classes specific to immigrants’ jobs, paired immigrant workers with English-speaking colleagues so they can practice conversational English, and bought language-learning software that workers can take home. 
  • Job training: Immigrants are also changing the way employers conduct job training. Some employers offer training in workers’ native languages, mix English learning with technical training, and use more visuals in workplace safety instruction. Some employers also try to ensure that experienced bilingual workers are assigned to each work team.  
  • Education in immigration laws: Some employers train staff in immigration laws and compliance to make it easier for immigrants to navigate the workplace.  
  • Sponsorship: Yearly, employers sponsor about 126,000 immigrants already residing in the United States to become legal permanent residents. 
  • Foreign-acquired credentials: Employers are hiring companies that specialize in foreign credentialing, training staff in how to recognize these credentials, and being more attentive to the value of skills gained abroad.

My study cannot attest to how widespread these practices are (to know that, we would have to poll a nationally representative sample of employers). What the study does is—for the first time—systematically look at workplace integration practices and their potential for improving immigrant integration. By making these practices more visible, other employers may see them as viable for their workplaces.

How are workplace integration practices put in place?

Labor unions, immigrant-serving organizations, and community colleges are instrumental in generating employer interest in workplace integration practices. Immigrant-serving organizations cultivate relationships with employers, and employers see these nonprofits as a resource for putting these practices in place.

For instance, immigrant-serving organizations can provide or recommend instructors, assist in developing curriculum and culturally competent workplaces, and gauge employers’ needs. These organizations communicate to employers the benefits that workplace integration practices can bring. Unions are negotiating the adoption of these practices and can monitor closely the outcomes of these programs.

What does this mean for immigrant integration and economic mobility?

In the last year, President Obama has called for improved job-training programs, ensuring that such training is closely aligned with employers’ needs. My study makes clear that immigrant integration services are crucial to job training, meeting employers’ needs, and improving the career advancement and economic mobility of immigrant workers.

And what immigrant workers gain from integration services goes beyond the workplace to affect their well-being and ability to navigate other areas of their lives. One organization representative I interviewed, describing workplace English-language classes for janitors, told me “workers take the [English-language] training to the doctor, to schools” and it can be “life changing for the immigrant.”

Rosen Sharma, CEO of Solidcore Systems, smiles at his office in Palo Alto, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2003. Photo by Paul Sakuma/ AP

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