The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 17, 2018

Immigrant workers play key roles in local economies and merit investment

In this time of intense conflict over immigration policies, we should not forget that immigration and immigrant diversity are a constituent part of who we are as a country and what defines our society.

Immigrants are a key pillar of our country’s economic strength and vitality. They make up 17 percent of the US workforce, with higher shares in many cities. And as immigration policy debates rage on and as families and communities suffer the consequences of toxic rhetoric, uncertainty, and family separations, immigrant workers are still showing up for work. They are still clocking in to support their families, employers, and communities and contribute to our economy’s stability and growth.

But are immigrants getting the skills they need to advance their careers, unlock better wages, and meet employer demand? Our recent report shines a light on immigrant workers in lower- and middle-skilled jobs and the barriers they face to education and training.

Employers need workers with bilingual and cultural skills to serve an increasingly diverse public and work in a globalized economy. With low unemployment rates, employers are especially in need of employees to fill middle-skilled positions that require some postsecondary training but not a four-year college degree.

But most immigrant workers in low-paying jobs have limited opportunities to pursue education and training and expand their English and technical skills. Although some successful programs exist, many local workforce systems have found it challenging to serve immigrant workers effectively. And we lack systematic knowledge about how to address barriers and design training for these workers.

What do we know about immigrant workers?

Most immigrants in the workforce have been in the US for many years, with a median of 17 years of residence and a median age of 41. Just under half are limited English proficient, meaning that they speak English less than “very well.” Workers in lower-skilled jobs have higher rates of limited English proficiency than those with college or advanced degrees.

Immigrant workers’ median annual wages are low: $29,407 across all immigrant workers and lowest for those in lower-skilled jobs. Immigrant workers with lower- and middle-skilled jobs earn lower wages than their native-born counterparts.

As a whole, foreign-born workers have lower educational attainment than native-born workers: about a quarter have less than a high school diploma or equivalent, compared with 5 percent among native-born workers. On the other hand, about one-third of foreign-born workers have a college or advanced degree, similar to the share among the native born.

Across the entire workforce, slightly less than half of all workers hold lower-skilled jobs, one-quarter hold middle-skilled jobs, and the remainder hold high-skilled jobs. Immigrants are more likely than the native born to have lower-skilled jobs, but they are just as likely as native-born workers to hold middle-skilled jobs.

Barriers and opportunities to training

Although many immigrants in the US have college or advanced degrees and are working in professional jobs (or are underemployed and working in jobs that do not align with their foreign-earned credentials), our focus is on the large share of immigrants working in low-paid, poorer-quality jobs. Although these immigrants often fly under the radar, they fill so many key jobs—like custodial workers, home health aides, and construction laborers—that undergird other employment and productivity in our economy. Investing in their continued skill building, including English language and technical training, would have payoffs for employers and for communities.

We talked with service providers and stakeholders in Dallas, Miami, and Seattle to better understand the challenges immigrants face in pursuing education and training to advance their careers or get better jobs. Many organizations described challenges around limited English proficiency and difficulty transferring foreign credentials and overseas job experience to the US job market. They also pointed to issues that affect the low-income population in general: low digital literacy and low basic skills, high housing costs, lack of transportation and child care, and financial pressures that push immigrants to work multiple low-paid jobs to support their families.

We also learned that service providers grapple with their own challenges, including raising funds to develop and maintain programs, managing complex and sometimes contradictory performance reporting requirements from different funding sources, and working with the federal workforce system structure implemented through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Also, division between immigrant-serving organizations and English language training providers, the workforce development board and community colleges, and employers can hinder solutions. All parties would benefit from bridging gaps and coming together to engage immigrants and their employers in workforce development strategies.

Immigrant-serving organizations need to be at the table in workforce and economic development conversations, helping inform and make relevant to their communities the range of policy developments in workforce, education, and other fields that affect their constituents.

State and local policymakers, service providers, funders, and employers can all take steps to better serve immigrants and put their needs on the radar, alongside the needs of other residents.

This is even more important in our current political climate. Immigrant communities are feeling pressure from a gamut of federal policy changes, including heightened immigration enforcement, the travel ban, slowed immigration and citizenship processing, and uncertainty around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), temporary protected status, the asylum and refugee programs, the future of the immigration court system, and disincentives to receive essential public assistance because of public charge regulation developments.

With this onslaught, policies and practices at the state and local level are becoming even more crucial to protecting and supporting the immigrant workers and families who are part of their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and communities. Communities should acknowledge and address the often-overlooked immigrant workforce that sustains their local economies and make sure immigrant workers are a part of local economic development and workforce development strategies and conversations.

Guatemalan immigrants attend an English as a Second Language (ESL), class on December 3, 2016 at an migrants assistance center in Stamford, Connecticut. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

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