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The US has a skills gap problem—and it’s ignoring its most obvious solution

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
US employers need skills. Refugees have them.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The United States will admit just 18,000 refugees for the coming fiscal year, the Trump administration announced this past fall.

That’s the lowest number of refugees legally relocated to the US since 1980, when Congress established its current resettlement program.

This new restriction reinforces the disappointing trend that has already led to historic lows of resettled refugees under Trump—even as the number of refugees worldwide has risen to the highest levels since World War II.

Fewer refugees is bad news for the country and for the economy. There are more than 7.5 million open jobs in the US and nearly half of US employers are struggling to find employees with the skills they need.

There is, however, a viable solution to this growing skills gap and US labor shortage: the refugee workforce.

An estimated 2 million college-educated immigrants and refugees in the US are underemployed or underemployed. The 44 million or so immigrants in the US are arriving better educated than ever before. The same is true for today’s population of undocumented immigrants.

Often forced to leave behind established careers, degrees, and other credentials in their home countries that lose legitimacy under a new system, incoming refugees represent a massive amount of untapped talent for US employers struggling to hire skilled workers.

So, what’s not adding up?

Lost in translation

Unfortunately, refugees and immigrant workers face numerous systemic barriers when trying to find work in the United States. Research shows that language is the first and most obtrusive impediment to finding work.

Adults with limited English proficiency earn as much as 40% less than their peers who are proficient in English.

It also shows that more than 20 million adults in the US have limited proficiency in English, and an estimated 80% of refugees do not speak the language well upon arrival. Adults with limited English proficiency earn as much as 40% less than their peers who are proficient in English. Without language, people are often unable to accurately convey their skills or professional backgrounds, and many companies are hesitant to hire workers who do not speak the language spoken by the majority of their workforce. But a lack of English proficiency has little to do with a potential employee’s experience or education. When given the opportunity and access to effective resources, adults with limited English tend to learn the language surprisingly quickly—while on the job.

Learning the language

This is the power and possibility of contextualized language learning, especially if it is offered through the workplace.

Thanks in part to the growing economic urgency, the practice of integrating language education into the workplace is now being made more available at more companies struggling to fill positions.

This has been spurred by recent advances in technology and learning science, including next-generation messaging and social networks that help people access native speakers and real-world language practice not possible in traditional classrooms.

These dynamic collaboration tools help remove barriers of space and time. They foster a sense of community in conjunction with interactive learning activities, allowing people to learn at times that are convenient for them. In general, technology-enabled learning experiences encourage more consistent engagement among students, in part because it grants access to peers and instructors around the clock and from any location.

Language learning then becomes relevant to an individual’s needs and background. Let’s say a non-native English speaker wants to be promoted to a managerial position at a company in Chicago. She should focus on reading texts in English about leadership, listening to lectures on management best practices, and also read about the best restaurants and cultural activities in Chicago. Immersing herself in resources that have specific context  for her life helps set her up for success in ways that go beyond traditional language classroom lesson plans.

Contextualizing learning

Research suggests that when language instruction incorporates a specific context like this, it is far more effective than instruction rooted in a generic, one-size-fits-all education curriculum or even a classroom.

The economic benefit of language education is not lost on forward-thinking employers. Based on these findings, some companies are now offering language training that is continuous, tailored, and embedded in worker roles.

A number of business and city leaders in upstate New York municipalities have sought ways to incentivize refugees to relocate to the area with the promise of work. Recognizing both the importance of hiring refugees and the importance of providing for specific needs, these leaders have invested in language learning as system to attract and retain high-skilled immigrant workers.

Eleswhere, employers like the yogurt producer Chobani are offering refugee workers a pay increase if they enroll in online English language training.

In Portland, Maine, the state’s largest healthcare network, MaineHealth, has begun offering three to six months of web-based English-language learning to workers through the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. When asked why the network was offering the language training, Judy West, MaineHealth’s chief human resources officer, replied that it’s “the right thing to do.”

Of course, we believe West is right. But not just in terms of morality. Hiring and training refugees and other skilled immigrant workers is an economic imperative as well as a moral one.

The US skills shortage is only expected to grow in the coming years, as will the supply of skilled refugee workers.

Companies struggling to find the talent they need would be wise to tap into these hiring pools of non-native employees.

If we truly want our economy and industries to thrive, it only makes economic sense to invest in the tools and training that will get us there.

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