New report makes practical suggestions for improving workforce services for immigrants

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, May 16, 2016

A new report blends demographic and labor market analysis with stakeholder interviews to generate fresh workforce policy recommendations for New York City. A City of Immigrant Workers: Building a Workforce Strategy to Support All New Yorkers was released at a Ford Foundation event last month.

Funded by Ford and the New York Foundation, the report was produced by the Center for an Urban Future and the Center for Popular Democracy. While primarily aimed at municipal and philanthropic leaders, the report’s findings also have rich implications for workforce, adult education, and immigrant advocates.

Perhaps most importantly, the report explicitly builds off of the nationally recognized Career Pathways report issued by New York City last year. This deliberate framing emphasizes a central contention of the new report: That for the city’s ambitious Career Pathways initiative to succeed, it will need to be intentional in addressing the assets and needs of immigrant workers.

Setting the Stage: Workforce Demographics and Landscape 

The report opens with a portrait of New York City’s immigrant workforce. Immigrants make up nearly half (47%) of the city’s workforce, nearly triple the national rate of 17%.

The report draws on US Census Bureau data to explore New York City immigrant workers’ earnings; major sectors of employment; language skills; educational backgrounds; and immigration status. In particular, it highlights the high percentages of immigrant workers in six sectors that were identified in the Career Pathways report as priorities for building industry partnerships.

How Immigrants Relate to the City’s Workforce Ecosystem

Next, the report presents an analysis of immigrants in relation to the city’s labor market and so-called “workforce ecosystem.”  The workforce system in New York City includes services provided by more than 15 city agencies, supported by approximately $500 million in public funds. An additional $72 million in private philanthropy is also devoted to workforce development.

Yet despite this substantial investment, the report says, “there is limited quantitative data about how public and privately funded workforce services entities connect with immigrants in New York City.” This lack of data is extreme: The city’s public Workforce1 Career Centers do not even have comprehensive data on how many foreign-born New Yorkers are accessing their services, much less what services they are receiving or their outcomes.

(New York is not alone; this is a national problem. Learn more in NSC’s fact sheet on workforce program data and immigrants, published in collaboration with the Workforce Data Quality Campaign.)

Few NYC workforce and adult education programs are specifically targeted at immigrants, the report notes. Of those that are directed toward foreign-born New Yorkers, most focus on English language instruction. A relative handful provide workforce services, such as sector-focused bridge programs for Limited English Proficient jobseekers. 

Another section of the report focuses on the informal sector, where workers toil in unregulated and unmonitored workplaces. Unusually for a workforce study, the report explores the “competition” that private employment agencies represent for public and nonprofit workforce providers. In contrast to public workforce centers (a map of which is included in the report) these private agencies are often located in immigrant-dense neighborhoods.

More worryingly, the authors note, these private employment agencies “often prey upon the financial vulnerability and/or instability of a worker’s immigration status” by charging excessive fees, offering meaningless certifications, and connecting workers to jobs that pay far below the legal wage.

Key Barriers & Recommendations for Action

The bulk of the report focuses on barriers faced by immigrant workers and promising strategies for overcoming those barriers.  The report’s recommendations fall into three broad categories: 1) Build the right career ladders for immigrants; 2) improve immigrant access to workforce development through systems coordination; and 3) raise workplace standards for immigrant workers.

Below, we explore select recommendations:

  • Make additional investments in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and adult basic education, focusing on high-quality programs with measurable positive outcomes in educational and skill gains.  National Skills Coalition is a strong supporter of increased funding for adult education; this issue was a key policy request at our Skills Summit earlier this year.
  • Develop new integrated bridge and occupational training programs that provide workforce training and English language instruction using knowledge generated through the city’s new Industry Partnerships. The value of programs that provide contextualized instruction in basic skills combined with attainment of an industry-recognized occupational credential is widely recognized. Model programs cited in the report include those run by 1199SEIU and LaGuardia Community College. NSC is proud to note that the directors of both of these programs – Faith Wiggins and John Hunt – are members of our National Advisory Panel on Skills Equity.
  • Build the capacity of community-based organizations in immigrant neighborhoods to 1) serve a greater number of people through workforce development programming; 2) make appropriate referrals to training and job placement services; and 3) establish robust partnerships with larger adult education and workforce services providers to increase offerings in areas of the city where immigrants live. The report cites PHI’s Cooperative Home Care Associates as an example of an effective larger workforce organization to which immigrant-serving nonprofits can refer, and the Lower East Side Employment Network as an example of a robust multi-organization referral network. 
  • Increase support and technical assistance for community-based organizations and worker centers that already work with undocumented immigrant workers to help them improve their skills and protect their rights in the workplace. Worker centers, also known as day-laborer centers, can offer valuable opportunities for immigrant workers to learn on-site while waiting for employment. NSC profiled one such effort, a Vocational ESOL program offered at the Pasadena Community Job Center in partnership with a local community college.

To view the remainder of the recommendations, refer to the full report.

Implications for Other Cities

The New York report provides a powerful roadmap that advocates in other cities and states may consider replicating. Elements that could most easily be adapted include:

  • Demographic and labor market analysis. NYC used publicly available US Census Bureau and labor-market data, which is easily accessible for other geographic regions using tools such as the American Fact Finder. Additional data on immigrant workers in particular is available via the Migration Policy Institute’s Data Hub.
  • Connection to local workforce policy agendas. In New York City’s case, this was the aforementioned Career Pathways report issued by the city in 2014. Advocates deliberately built off of the city’s earlier report to draw connections between immigrant workers and the city’s broader agenda.  Other regions can look to their local or state workforce boards’ Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) plans or similar public documents for inspiration.
  • Amplification of effective models. To help illuminate its policy recommendations, the New York report used concrete examples of local programs that could be expanded or replicated. This technique is effective in helping readers make connections between abstract policies and tangible impact.