Michigan Breaks New Ground in Workforce Services for New Americans

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, December 18, 2017

National Skills Coalition Director of Upskilling Policy Amanda Bergson-Shilcock traveled to Michigan in November for two briefings with state and local workforce staff. The briefings focused on effective strategies for serving jobseekers who are immigrants and/or English language learners.

The trip was sparked by an invitation from two state officials:  Karen Phillippi, Deputy Director of the Michigan Office for New Americans (MONA), and Stephanie Beckhorn, Senior Deputy Director for Workforce Development at the Michigan Talent Investment Agency (TIA).

Michigan is one of just a half-dozen states nationwide to have a state-level initiative focused on the integration of immigrant residents. Governor Rick Snyder (R) established MONA in 2014 via executive order. The office is led by Director Bing Goei.  In the nearly four years since MONA’s launch, the agency has implemented several skills-related initiatives, several of which are detailed below.

Lloyd Conway, Program Specialist at TIA, moderated the November briefings. A major theme of Amanda’s remarks was that program and policy interventions that address barriers faced by immigrants can also be valuable in serving other jobseekers, such as veterans or those who are returning from incarceration. Michigan has sought to serve these and other populations through a variety of efforts focused on so-called “structural unemployment.”

Amanda provided background context on the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and requirements for serving English language learners under the legislation. She also shared skills policy examples from other states and localities, including Seattle’s use of Community Development Block Grant funds to support its Ready to Work program, and several states’ use of SNAP Employment & Training resources to support skill-building. Finally, attendees learned about NSC’s state policy resources on Skills Equity issues, including 50-state scans and policy toolkits.

Attendees at the briefings included staff from Michigan’s newly launched Refugee/Immigrant Navigator program, described below.

Launching Refugee/Immigrant Navigators at Local Workforce Centers

In Summer 2017, MONA used WIOA Title I Governor’s Reserve funds (sometimes called discretionary funds), paired with some state funding, to establish new Refugee/Immigrant Navigator positions in collaboration with four local workforce boards and community partners. The Navigators are modeled on an earlier state program that provided similar services to jobseekers with disabilities.

The four pilot locations include Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Kent counties. The locations were selected due to their relatively high concentration of refugee and immigrant Michiganders.

Navigators function as a kind of “air traffic control” for jobseekers, helping identify which publicly funded programs they qualify for and how to access them. Some participants are enrolled in WIOA Title I workforce services, while others pursue Title II adult education services or still other employment-related resources.

Michigan is the second state to use WIOA discretionary funds to support Navigators for this population, following California.

Expanding Adult ESOL Models

MONA funded five innovative adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) pilot programs during 2017. Each program received a one-year grant of approximately $50,000. Funding came from the Governor’s office. The intent of the pilots was to provide in-demand English learning services that could reach under-served populations and could not easily be funded using existing state or federal ESOL funding.

Among the models funded were a contextualized ESOL program for the construction industry that also allows participants to earn an OSHA safety certification and forklift license.

Smoothing Pathways to Occupational Licensure

MONA is housed within the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees licensing for dozens of professions and other occupations in the state. Michigan has been recognized as a national leader in helping immigrants with foreign credentials learn how they can pursue licensure in the United States.

Among MONA’s achievements are publishing a series of licensing guides to help applicants navigate the path to licensure. An initial 11 guides were developed in collaboration with the nonprofit Upwardly Global. To date, the state has now published more than 40 guides for occupations ranging from cosmetologist to accountant to mortuary science to respiratory therapist.

Assisting Immigrant Professionals to Return to their Fields

MONA’s Michigan International Talent Solutions (MITS) program provides direct assistance to immigrant jobseekers who have credentials from abroad. In addition to career coaching and job-placement assistance, MITS provides eligible candidates with an opportunity to improve their English language skills using an online tool from Education First.

As appropriate, MITS participants can also receive up to $6,000 in “re-skilling” assistance that allows them to pursue short-term training that will prepare them to use their international experience in a US context. Re-skilling vouchers can be used at US institutions such as community colleges or private training providers. Examples include training in QuickBooks software for bookkeepers or accountants, training in AutoCAD for architectural professionals, and numerous other opportunities.