White House convening highlights strategies for integrating immigrant workers

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, October 09, 2015

National Skills Coalition staff joined nearly 150 fellow civic and nonprofit leaders in Washington this week for a White House convening of the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign (BWCC). The campaign encourages state and local governments to pursue activities that support the inclusion of all residents, and foster the economic, civic, and linguistic integration of immigrants and refugees.

Attendees were welcomed by Felicia Escobar of the Domestic Policy Council, who shared updates on the work of the White House Task Force on New Americans. Escobar noted that 46 American communities have already signed on to the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign. Next, David Lubell, executive director of the nonprofit Welcoming America, shared his vision for a “tipping point” of local welcoming initiatives that would permanently alter the landscape of immigrant integration in the United States. 

Workforce issues took center stage at the convening’s first panel discussion, which featured representatives from Global Talent Idaho and the Idaho Department of Labor. In 2014, Idaho successfully obtained a federal Job-Driven National Emergency Grant (JD-NEG), a portion of which now supports the innovative Global Talent Idaho program.

Global Talent Idaho (GTI) serves refugees and immigrants who have professional credentials and experience from their home countries, but are now unemployed or working in low-wage “survival” jobs. The program works with Idaho employers to provide so-called “skilled internships” (as distinguished from entry-level internships for students). The internships allow refugees to gain invaluable American workplace experience while simultaneously demonstrating their skills to a local employer.

GTI program manager Tara Wolfson explained that her organization had used a small discretionary grant from the state Office of Refugee Resettlement to get started. With technical assistance from the federal Networks for Integrating New Americans initiative, GTI identified a program model, based on the nonprofit Upwardly Global. But they needed additional funding to launch. 

The galvanizing moment came when Wolfson and her colleagues saw that foreign-trained professionals were explicitly mentioned in the federal JD-NEG grant solicitation. This encouraged the nascent GTI project to reach out to state labor department officials to make the case for funding.

Next, Idaho Department of Labor staffer Kay Vaughan picked up the story. She had noted two emerging trends in federal workforce funding, Vaughan explained: employer engagement and work-based learning.  When Global Talent Idaho called, Vaughan was in the midst of identifying how Idaho could expand its efforts in both areas. The GTI model – with its close connection to local employers, and innovative use of mid-career internships – was a perfect fit.  And the specific reference to foreign-trained professionals in the federal grant solicitation further increased Idaho’s confidence in pursuing this strategy.

Many of the themes raised by Vaughan and Wolfson were echoed in the second panel of the day, which featured Paul Feltman of WES Global Talent Bridge and IMPRINT. Feltman emphasized the importance of investing in immigrants’ skill development, including providing opportunities for English language learning and high-quality career advising to help immigrant professionals navigate the process of establishing American careers. Feltman’s organization recently released Steps to Success, a national study of immigrant professionals that includes detailed policy recommendations.

In the final portion of the day, staff from a half-dozen federal agencies participated in small-group breakout sessions to address questions from attendees. NSC staff joined the discussion with the US Departments of Labor and Education, which focused on adult education and workforce development issues.

Federal agency staff shared resources including the newly revised Career Pathways Toolkit, a 150-page reference guide for communities working to align education and skill development pathways as required by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Small-group attendees peppered the agency staff with questions ranging from logistical (“How do I engage with my local Workforce Board?”) to the more complex (“How can I overcome my state’s reluctance or confusion in providing public workforce services to immigrant jobseekers?”). In addition to the federal responses, attendees benefited from peer learning, with some attendees chiming in to share their local experiences with others facing similar challenges.

The day concluded in a buzz of conversation, as dozens of local leaders made promises and exchanged and contact information for later follow-up.

National Skills Coalition is looking forward to the next phase of the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign, in which NSC and other national partners will provide practical webinars to help local communities foster immigrant integration.