In communities across the country, many employers are having trouble finding enough skilled workers. They may be overlooking an untapped resource. A large share of immigrant workers are in lower-skilled jobs, however, with the right access to education and training they need to advance their careers, many have the potential to meet these labor force needs.

Workforce development services could help them develop their skills, earn higher wages to support themselves and their families, and meet employer demand.  Immigrants make up one out of six workers in the United States. They are an often overlooked but vital part of local economies and, therefore, should be a part of local workforce development strategies. Middle-skilled jobs are an avenue for many of these workers to get good jobs without needing a four-year degree. Employers have expressed a need for workers with bilingual and cultural skills to serve an increasingly diverse public. Many cities and organizations are engaged in upskilling their immigrant workforce, though it is challenging to serve this population effectively, and there is not much systematic knowledge about the most effective way to address barriers and design training for this group.

This report examines the size and characteristics of the potentially untapped immigrant workforce and the barriers to and opportunities for education, training, and workforce services. The report provides national and metropolitan-level statistics to inform decision-makers. The authors also explore strategies that organizations in three cities—Dallas, Miami, and Seattle—are using to support immigrant training and advancement and offer practice and policy recommendations for others. The study focuses on immigrants currently employed in lower- and middle-skilled occupations and who are authorized to work in the US. Many of the issues discussed in this report also apply to undocumented workers, who could benefit from upskilling efforts, but they are not eligible for certain federal employment programs.

Major Findings & Recommendations

  • State and local policymakers making policy and funding decisions can be aware of and sensitive to the key role that immigrant workers are playing in their communities, pushing forward workforce and education issues. Policymakers can put more resources into English language learning and encourage organizations to serve immigrants and LEP individuals. 
  • Organizations providing workforce development services and education and training can work to improve program accessibility and design to serve immigrant community members. Local workforce development boards, community colleges, and school districts, whose mission is to serve the community, can assess the extent to which they are funding immigrant-serving organizations or serving immigrant and LEP communities. They can work to improve the linguistic and cultural competence and accessibility of programs by hiring multilingual staff and partnering with immigrant-serving organizations to fill in gaps in visibility, language access, and cultural knowledge. Organizations should connect with immigrant-serving organizations to leverage WIOA’s opportunity for pressing forward the needs of LEP individuals as a priority of service population, as well as youth in immigrant families. 
  • Funders interested in supporting equity and economic mobility can consider incorporating immigrant populations and English language learning into their funding priorities. They can work to ensure that these issues are reflected in their awarding of grants—that local grantees are reaching this population through direct services or incorporating an immigrant-inclusive lens in systems-level work. 
  • Employers who want to recruit and retain workers can invest in improving job quality by recognizing barriers like childcare and transportation and providing supports or services to help current employees. They can also invest in upskilling their employees through onsite training to foster English language learning and promote advancement. And they can collaborate with immigrant-serving organizations and other training providers to ensure that training programs are informed by current industry need.