Improving workers’ skills must include immigrants

February 26, 2015

On February 16, a U.S. district judge put the brakeson the most controversial parts of President Obama’sexecutive actions on immigration signed in November. In response a week later, the Department of Justicefiled a request for a stay that, if granted, would allow the programs to move forward while the appeals process works out.

Meanwhile, another aspect of President Obama’s executive action has gone almost unnoticed: the establishment of a taskforce to focus on the integration of immigrants into the economy and their communities. Recognizing the important role that immigrants play in today’s economy, and the growing role they will play in the coming decades, the White House Taskforce on New Americans aims to bolster efforts at the federal, state, and local levels to address the civic, economic, and linguistic incorporation of residents born outside the United States.

This is an important goal. Immigrants and their children have become an increasingly significant part of the U.S. labor force. As the (mostly white) baby boomers retire, a more diverse generation of workers—whose ranks were shaped by immigration—will replace them. In fact, immigrants are projected to account for almost all of the nation’s labor force growththrough 2050, by which time 37 percent of the U.S. population is projected to be foreign born or the children of immigrants. It is in our collective interest for immigrants and their children to succeed.

Recognition is growing that the United States must boost the skills of its workers in order to maintain economic competitiveness. A 2013 survey of 23 OECD countries found that the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills of U.S. adults lag behind those of most other OECD countries. A new study from the Migration Policy Institute finds that, while immigrants scored lower on these measures, on average, than native-born Americans, taking immigrants out of the equation would not have boosted the United States’ rank among OECD countries. And those adults who were born in the United States to immigrant parents scored on par with those whose parents were native born, indicating significant progress in one generation. Nevertheless, these skills differentials affect immigrants’ income, employment, education, and health.

A confluence of recent policy actions makes now an opportune time to get serious about investing in all workers, including immigrants. The White House integration taskforce is looking for ideas, and the National Skills Coalition has responded with detailed recommendations to increase capacity, encourage employer involvement, boost integrated education and skills training, and align workforce development programs with other services that enable more adults to access these programs. In addition, the recently reauthorized Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act—set to be implemented this summer—provides new opportunities to reach immigrant workers with the English instruction and vocational training that can lead to significant gains in the labor market. And the administration last year announced a national job-driven training action plan to underscore the importance of employer demand in connecting workers to good-paying jobs. But where the rubber meets the road is at the regional level, and these efforts must take into account local industry needs and human capital assets. That is already happening in some forward-looking regions with partnerships between businesses, educational institutions, and nonprofits (including immigrant-serving organizations).  

But there is much work still to be done, and now is the time to do it. As the U.S. labor force transitions to one increasingly comprising first- and second-generation Americans, we can’t afford to leave immigrants behind.