These days, Marta has trouble finding work. Often, when she goes to apply for a job in food service or domestic work, the first thing she’s asked is, “Do you know English?” Answering with honesty, Marta always replies that she knows only a little.
More often than not, she’s turned away because the employer wants someone with English fluency. “These days, the truth is, it’s very hard to get a job,” Marta says.
New York City is home to the most diverse immigrant population of any major city in the world. Immigrants make up almost 40 percent of the population and nearly half of the city’s workforce.
But the city is faced with a paradox: While immigrants are employed at higher rates than native-born New Yorkers, they are disproportionately clustered in lower-wage jobs, have lower incomes on average than their native-born counterparts, and often experience higher rates of poverty. Many, like Marta, have low levels of English proficiency which can make it difficult to find good-paying work.
Since New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took office a little over two years ago, the city has begun to restructure its workforce development system, creating an important opportunity to address some of the inequities faced by immigrant New Yorkers.
The city’s new framework for its workforce development system, called Career Pathways, promises to dedicate an unprecedented level of investment in job training and education for the city’s most vulnerable workers, to ensure that the city’s investments in workforce development are aligned across city agencies, and to work with employers and other stakeholders to improve the quality of the city’s lowest-paid jobs.
However, the plan did not sufficiently take into account the particular workforce challenges faced by New York’s immigrant population. Immigrants comprise the vast majority of workers in the fastest growing occupations in the city, ranging from home health aides and construction workers to registered nurses and software programmers. As such, immigrant workers are at the core of the city’s economic vitality, and their success must be central to the city’s overhaul of its workforce system.
Immigrant workers and jobseekers experience a number of unique barriers that limit advancement in the workforce. For example, a significant number of immigrants do not speak English well and have lower levels of formal education, on average.
At the same time there are thousands of immigrants that hold college or other education credentials that aren’t recognized in the United States, and are therefore stuck working at jobs that do not take full advantage of their skills and talents. And in the low-wage workforce, which is comprised heavily of immigrant workers, exploitation of workers is rampant. This is especially true for undocumented workers and those working in the informal economy.
The success of the Career Pathways plan depends on its ability to address the major barriers that immigrant New Yorkers face. A report co-authored by the Center for Popular Democracy and Center for an Urban Future identifies these barriers and outlines a coordinated approach for tackling the obstacles that prevent immigrant workers from reaching their full potential.
Specifically, the city and private workforce funders should invest in English classes, adult education, and training and certification programs for workers with varied levels of educational background and English proficiency. This would allow them to earn the skills they need to be competitive in the labor force and keep them from getting trapped in low-wage jobs.
Second, the city must ensure that immigrant workers are aware of these services by making sure that they are available in the neighborhoods where immigrants live or work. One great way to do this is to partner with nonprofit organizations that are based in immigrant communities, and to ensure that available funding is reaching workforce programs in immigrant communities.
Finally, a workforce development strategy that works for immigrants should improve the quality of the low-wage jobs that so many immigrants fill. This includes enforcing and improving job protection laws, which often go unenforced, and securing a higher minimum wage and access to paid sick leave. Employers themselves are a big part of this conversation, and the city should use its influence to help them improve the quality of their lowest-paid positions.
Without a coordinated approach to ensure that workforce development services are reaching immigrants, the city’s plan risks overlooking an enormous population of workers and job-seekers. We now have an opportunity to ensure that immigrants are included as a key part of this plan.
Kate Hamaji at the Center for Popular Democracy and Christian González-Rivera at the Center for an Urban Future are co-authors of the report, A City of Immigrants: Building a Workforce Strategy to Support all New Yorkers.
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