The Future of Work and the Immigrant Workforce

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Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, Lumina Foundation, Workforce Matters and The Foundation recently convened The Future of Work and the Immigrant Workforce roundtable in San Francisco to:

  • Deepen our understanding on how to support immigrant workers and their families in the future of work
  • Identify areas of opportunity to be inclusive of the immigrant worker perspective in future of work strategies
  • Explore philanthropic principles that are inclusive of the immigrant worker perspective in the future of work

More than 45 attendees representing nearly as many organizations participated in this important conversation, including San Diego Workforce Partnership CEO Peter Callstrom.

The intersection

Ahead of the event, participants were asked about the roundtable’s namesake—the intersection of the future of work and the immigrant workforce. Six themes emerged. Featured responses have been edited for brevity.

1. The future is here

“The future of work is now! Immigrants make up the primary source of labor force growth and are therefore a key to continued economic growth in a low-unemployment environment. In this job market, immigrants have an opportunity to play some ‘catch up’ with their increasing leverage that they have with employers.

“Employers are desperate for talent and will consider hiring individuals they might not have considered before. At the same time, job quality is increasing. It is incumbent upon the workforce development and immigrant services fields to take full advantage of this economy on behalf of the immigrant community.”

2. Upskilling

“As an essential part of the workforce, over 17% and rapidly growing, the immigrant workforce must also be seen as an important asset and incorporated in the upskilling efforts.”

3. Centering workers, worker agency and advancing just working conditions

“It is important to have conversations about the future of work that balance both the technical advances that will impact large parts of the workforce AND understand that the service industry, which is largely low-wage work, will continue to grow and will be places of relatively easy entry for immigrant communities. Of importance will be to continue to press that these jobs—particularly jobs pertaining to caregiving, be it eldercare or childcare—be high quality jobs with a good wage and workplaces that treat workers with dignity and respect.”

4. Policy

“To ensure that immigrant workers have economic security and full economic opportunity, any future of work conversation has to include a comprehensive solution that includes the following:

  1. A pathway to legalization for undocumented workers in the country
  2. Strategies and policies to transform jobs overrepresented by immigrant workers into good jobs with strong labor protections
  3. Robust workforce development that addresses the impact of technology on industries and jobs and balances the needs of individual workers and the demands of jobs growth at the industry level (e.g., care industry)
  4. Immigration policy that creates more legal channels for migrants to come to participate in our labor market, grow and bring dynamism to our economy and society.”

5. Racial equity

“The immigrant workforce is a critical part of the future workforce, but they are not fully represented in the higher paying jobs that are projected for the future. The skills mismatch is a part of it, as is deep systemic racial and gender bias in many of these economic growth sectors.”

6. Narrative

“Immigrants tend to have higher rates of employment but lower wages and fewer benefits. Immigrants are also over-represented in entrepreneurial ventures and stimulate the economy as employers. Furthermore, as the overall U.S. population ages, immigrants are a necessary driver of economic well-being for our country as a core workforce and economic stimulus. By shifting the narrative about immigrant workers and the needs of our current and future economy, we have the potential to shift the larger conversation about immigration reform and valuing diversity and equity in our communities and our nation.”

Challenges

Participants were also asked about the challenges at the intersection of the future of work and the immigrant workforce. Seven key challenges were identified. Featured responses have been edited for brevity.

1. Narrative and Bridge-Building

“There are harmful narratives around ‘good immigrants’ and ‘bad immigrants’ that have led to occupational segregation and overcrowding in specific fields when you look at trends in the immigrant workforce. You also must combat harmful narratives around deserving and the undeserving, and the sense that immigrants are just here for us to use and abuse their labor without accepting their whole selves.”

2. Policy

“The current administration’s immigration policy is interfering with both high skill and low skill workers; and forcing immigrant workers of all types into a sort of ‘gig’ economy. This is not good for either employers or workers and exacerbates the income gaps.”

3. Data and Information Gaps

“Both information about immigrant workers and information about the future of work tend to be at a high level that obscures important differences (e.g. different experiences of immigrants from different countries, differential impacts of automation, and the rise of independent contracting on different regions). This makes it hard to act on the data and recommendations that are presented.”

4. Upskilling and Training

“The tight labor market may cause immigrants with limited English proficiency to enter into a cycle of low-wage work. Individuals need to make as much money as possible to support their families, so they take multiple jobs. Our hope is that they can still access critical supports like English classes, career and financial coaching and job training to advance beyond low-wage, back-breaking work. Workplace-based or otherwise flexible programs are rare but necessary.”

5. Centering Workers

“How are we able to center worker experiences in conversations about the future of work? How can we provide ‘good jobs’ to these communities?”

6. Defining the Future of Work

“I have participated in many future of work conversations in the last several years. Almost all the conversations do not include immigrant workers. We need to bring immigrant workers into the future of work conversations. Moreover, the future of work conversation must include immigration policy as a labor market policy to ensure that we are growing our economy and meeting our labor market needs.”

7. Role of Philanthropy

“[There is a] lack of professional opportunities for immigrants and refugees to obtain good positions in fields, such as philanthropy, that are majority white and male led. Institutions are often denying amazing people the opportunity because they ‘do not qualify.’ However, we have probably not changed qualifications in decades.

An immigrant who understands the experience of the community may very well be capable of becoming a director of a nonprofit that serves immigrants. Additionally, even internship opportunities are not being offered enough to young immigrants. An immigrant can also be capable of becoming a program officer of a foundation if it looks at serving people of color.”

Many thanks to all the conveners and participating organizations. Welcoming New Americans to the workforce is an important topic for us here at the Workforce Partnership. Do you have something to add to this conversation? Send us a message.