Middle-skill credentials: a winning path for immigrant Dreamers

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, March 14, 2016

Some young immigrants are finding success by earning shorter-term credentials for middle-skill occupations. That’s a key finding of a new report that surveyed young people, known as Dreamers, about their educational and vocational paths.

The report, DACA at Year Three, is the newest publication to emerge from the National UnDACAmented Research Project, headed by Dr. Roberto Gonzales of Harvard University.  It was published in collaboration with the American Immigration Council. 

The report’s findings are based on in-depth interviews with more than 450 immigrants. The overwhelming majority (88%) of respondents had obtained Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. 

(The DACA program, which was originally announced by the Obama administration in 2012, allows eligible undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children to apply for temporary protection from deportation and a 2-year renewable work permit. To date, more than 700,000 young people have been granted DACA status.*)

Why Middle-Skill Credentials Matter in the Labor Market

Middle-skill occupations are those that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. They include aircraft mechanics, licensed practical nurses, and certified production technicians, just to name a few.

A National Skills Coalition analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found there are not enough workers in the US trained for middle skill jobs: Fully 54% of jobs in the labor market are middle-skill, but only 44% of workers are trained to that level.

Immigrants, including those known as Dreamers, can play an important role in helping their states meet the demand for middle-skill workers. National Skills Coalition explored this issue in our our 2015 report Missing in Action: Job-Driven Educational Pathways for Unauthorized Youth and Adults.

Geography Affects Education and Career Options

There is robust demand for middle-skill workers across the 50 states, as NSC’s state-by-state fact sheets demonstrate.

Yet immigrant Dreamers’ ability to prepare themselves for these careers often varies depending on where they live. A central finding of the DACA at Year Three report is that respondents’ access to education and career opportunities is affected by their state of residence.

For example, some states allow young Dreamers to pay in-state tuition rates for higher education, while other states do not.  Similarly, only some states allow DACA recipients to obtain occupational or professional licenses.

Federal policy guidance does allow DACA recipients to receive job-training services via the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), provided they meet standard eligibility criteria and funds are available. However, navigating the application process can be challenging for individuals who are not familiar with the public workforce system.  National Skills Coalition has profiled a successful effort by an Arizona nonprofit to help DACA recipients obtain WIOA-funded job training

Positive Outcomes of Receiving DACA

Overall, DACA at Year Three respondents reported that DACA gave them better access to more stable jobs with higher pay, better benefits, and less stressful working conditions.

Respondents’ increased earning capacity also helped them to meet their tuition needs. And in some states, obtaining DACA status allowed individuals to gain increased access to higher education and to some scholarships. (However, no DACA recipients are eligible for federal student financial aid.)

Momentum and optimism were most likely to be expressed by younger respondents (those ages 18-21). Many of these individuals had learned about the opportunity to apply for DACA status while they were still teenagers and had pursued it immediately, rather than finding out when they were young adults who had already left high school.

Continuing Barriers Faced by DACA Recipients

Nevertheless, respondents also noted continuing barriers to achieving their full educational and occupational potential. Chief among these were:

  • Incomplete or even erroneous guidance from teachers or counselors, which caused some respondents to encounter dead-ends, or waste time and money pursuing occupations that were closed to them
  • Lack of money or access to state financial aid, which discouraged some respondents from pursuing higher education, or prompted them to select shorter-term training than they had hoped to pursue

Policy Implications: What Can Be Done to Support Dreamers?

The study’s findings have important resonance for policymakers and advocates who seek to ensure that immigrant Dreamers can contribute their full array of talents to American society and our economy.

Particular implications of the DACA at Year Three study include:

  • The importance of high-quality pathway navigation and educational advising, especially for young people whose parents may have little experience with the US higher education and workforce training systems
  • The significance of middle-skill training and education as an effective pathway to higher wages and greater employment stability, regardless of whether the participant intends to eventually pursue a 4-year degree 
  • The value of systemic approaches that recognize the “talent pipeline” of training participants, and pre-emptively address common barriers that participants may encounter in their path to employment (e.g., transportation, occupational licensing) 
  • The challenge of providing meaningful guidance to Dreamers given the quickly-evolving patchwork of state laws and regulations that affect their education and career prospects 

Demographics of Study Participants 

One-third of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 21, and more than half (61%) were female. Like the pool of DACA beneficiaries nationwide, individuals interviewed for this study were disproportionately likely to be from Mexico (80%). While there are numerous factors that contribute to the over-representation of Latino immigrants among DACA recipients, the broad reach of Hispanic media likely plays a significant role.  

*A proposed expansion of the DACA program, as well as a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), were announced by the Obama administration in 2014. These programs are on hold while the Supreme Court hears a case to determine their legality. In the meantime, the original 2012 DACA program remains in effect.