Regional Growth Depends on Improving Immigrant Education

11.6.2012 |  A recent series of reports on immigration all point to one essential element. Providing opportunities for upward mobility through education is a key not only to immigrants’ well-being but the well-being of America’s future.

Immigrants today make up nearly 16% of the U.S. workforce (even though their share of the population is only 13%). Their share of the working population has grown from 5% in 1970.

In an opinion piece in September in the National Journal, Brookings Institution scholars noted that the future of jobs in America is a future of higher-skilled jobs. The majority will require some form of education and training beyond high school. An aging society and retiring Baby Boomers will only add to the shortage of skilled workers.

Yet, immigrants—particularly those in the lower-skilled jobs—lag behind U.S. citizens in their educational attainment.

As a recent Brookings Institution report notes, immigrants make up nearly half of all nannies, house cleaners, and other service jobs in private households. They also make up 31% of the hotels and accommodations staff, including maids, janitors, and housekeepers. And they’re heavily represented in low-skilled agriculture jobs.

It is in these low-skilled jobs where education levels lag those of U.S. citizens. Nearly three in ten adult immigrants in the United States do not hold a high school diploma, a stark contrast to 7% in the U.S.-born population, the report notes. In the accommodations sector, about two-thirds of U.S-born workers have at least a high school degree but only about one-third of foreign-born workers do.

On the other end of the skills scale, native- and foreign-born adults hold bachelor’s degrees at similar rates, 32% and 30%, respectively. These high-skilled groups are clustering in information technology and high-tech manufacturing, which pay quite well. As “The Immigrant Workforce and the Future of U.S. Immigration Policy” finds, nearly one-fourth of information technology and high-tech manufacturing workers are foreign-born.

Yet far too often, immigrants with more education find it hard to break into good jobs, and are increasingly underemployed, working in jobs that don’t require a degree. As Audrey Singer writes in “Investing in the Human Capital of Immigrants, Strengthening Regional Economies, these workers face a different set of barriers to work and well-being than workers lower down the skills scale. This group faces barriers such as a lack of social networks, an unfamiliarity with the U.S. job search process, or credentials that are often not recognized by U.S. employers. Like the engineer who drives a taxi or the human resources director who works as a nanny, these workers are often forced into these kinds of “survival jobs,” instead of being able to work in their trained fields.

“Moving some of these immigrants into jobs they were trained for or putting them
 on career tracks to fill regional shortages of workers, for example, in engineering, health care support, and information technology would accelerate job mobility, likely increasing earnings and boosting local revenue,” Singer writes.

Singer also highlights programs that are working to train more middle-skilled immigrant workers through partnerships between employers, technical schools, and community colleges. In contrast to the frequent complaints about competition immigrants create for low or middle-skilled jobs, these programs aim to link training with projected needs in the job market to address shortages for local economies.

As we wrote in an earlier in a BRR post, successful immigrant integration is key to regional growth. BRR member Manuel Pastor, writing  at the Huffington Post, notes that that prior research has shown that the share of foreign-born residents is often associated with rapid GDP growth.  He notes that the benefits immigrants bring to the economy and country as a whole too often get lost in our partisan policy debates:

“Their well-being is our well-being,” he writes. “It doesn’t make any sense (or, speaking as an economist, cents) to pass over their ability to strengthen our economy, keep us in touch with the rest of the world, and revitalize communities.”

Some areas are planning ahead with innovative and effective training and connector programs, according to the National Journal opinion piece.

“Regional assessments of employer needs have identified shortages in specific industries and occupations, and training programs have been designed to address these gaps. Some of the best initiatives include partnerships between nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and employers to build skills of immigrants in entry-level jobs such as automobile service technicians, certified nursing assistants, health care administrators, pharmacy technicians, and die setters and assembly workers.

These programs–from states like Washington and from cities that include Miami, Portland, Ore., and San Antonio–integrate English language training with skills training. The best ones, such as the Training Futures program, a partnership in suburban Virginia, offer clear career pathways and sufficient support to ensure workers finish their degrees or certificates.”

The issue will only gain in importance. In 2009, nearly one in four children in the U.S. under age 18—17.4 million children— was an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. The time is now to act to ensure a successful future for all. As a recent summary of immigration trends and policies by the Migration Policy Institute notes, however, “For all the public handwringing about immigration’s impact on American culture and society, there is a curious absence of creative public policy framing a constructive response.” The time is now.

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