Labor Shortages Necessitate Local Investment in Immigrant Workers

Seasonal farm workers, many of them immigrants, work a field and pick and package strawberries in Lake Forest, California.

Seasonal farm workers, many of them immigrants, work a field and pick and package strawberries in Lake Forest, California.


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Typically paid less and working worse hours, the foreign born struggle to “upskill” themselves.

Immigrants play a critical role in the U.S. workforce, and it’s important local governments invest in their training to improve their skills and address labor shortages, according to an Urban Institute report released Tuesday.

The D.C.-based think tank found immigrant workers in lower-skilled jobs earn a median wage of $21,266 annually, compared to $24,421 among the native born with similar jobs. The income gap increases in middle-skilled jobs, with immigrants making a median $28,905 to native-born workers’ $36,041.

Lower wages and poor work-life balance mean it’s tougher for immigrants to pay for their own “upskilling,” despite 31 percent boasting a college degree or above—close to the 33 percent of native-born workers with that level of education.

English should be a key component of workforce training because 60 percent of immigrants in lower-skilled jobs, 52 percent in middle-skilled jobs and 19 percent in high-skilled jobs have limited English proficiency, according to the report.

“Their wages and their job quality may be lower,” Hamutal Bernstein, Urban Institute senior research associate and the report’s coauthor, told Route Fifty. “They can be easily exploited, and they may have fewer opportunities for advancement.”

Immigrants with limited English proficiency may not rise to supervisory positions, Bernstein added, and their limited social networks inhibit access to better jobs.

Previous job experience and degrees earned in an immigrant’s home country may not be easily transferable when applying for work in the U.S., according to the report.

Even though similar numbers of immigrant and native-born workers hold middle-skilled jobs, not all occupations are created equal.

Immigrants gravitate toward housekeeping, janitorial work, construction, cashiering, and maintenance among lower-skilled occupations, while cooking, driving, health care, retail, and carpentry are predominant among the middle-skilled occupations. Native-born workers are far more likely to be secretaries or customer service representatives and far less likely to be maids or in agriculture.

Urban Institute’s report further examined the workforce development strategies of Dallas, Miami and Seattle.

In Seattle, rapid development has pushed immigrant workers out of the city and into adjacent suburbs—lengthening their commutes. A similar boom in Dallas has the construction industry clamoring for immigrant workers, but its sprawling physical setting and weak public transit makes it hard for them to access many jobs.

Foreign-born workers rival native-born workers in Miami, and so the city has emphasized immigrant entrepreneurship.

The report recommends tailoring English language training to different educational and career backgrounds, providing classes at worksites and involving multiple sectors. Local governments should also partner with the private sector to improve digital literacy, ensuring immigrant workers know the basics to use computers, and relevant vocational skills.

Any investment by local government in workforce development needs to include immigrant-serving organizations because they have the trust of those communities, Bernstein said.

“They are the gateways for accessing those groups,” she said. “It’s important to keep immigrants as part of conversation and recognize that they are part of the local workforce.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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