Welcoming America’s Guide to Immigrant Economic Development: Workforce Development

Luis WCNP 1Originally from San Cristobal, Venezuela, Luis Oman arrived in Philadelphia in January of 2015 in “pursuit of a bright future and a good life.” The high inflation in Venezuela made life difficult for Luis. He could barely get by with a minimum wage job, even after graduating from one of the best -and oldest- universities in Venezuela, with a degree as a chemical engineer and a concentration in petroleum studies.

Luis’ original intention for coming to the Welcoming Center was to enroll in English language courses, but he has since been able to take advantage of the Welcoming Center’s job placement services to land an initial job with his limited, although rapidly improving, English.

After a couple of months in English classes, Luis needed to find employment and began working with one of the Welcoming Center’s Employment Specialists. He received help writing his resume, filling out job applications, and preparing for interviews. Welcoming Center staff took Luis to multiple interviews and were in touch with him during the entire job search process, letting him know when there was an update with the status of his applications.

Luis with Welcoming Center Instructor Eric Rosenfeld

Luis with Welcoming Center Instructor Eric Rosenfeld

Finally, Luis was offered a job on the afternoon shift as a bulk folder at Cintas, a large company that emphasizes customer service. His department is in charge of packaging the products that will be sent back to hospitals and hotels.

While he is thrilled to be working in the U.S., Luis hopes to someday get a job in his field of chemical engineering. In order to help meet his goal of professional-level employment, he has since enrolled in another complementary program at the Welcoming Center to help college-degreed immigrants re-license in the U.S. or attain meaningful employment in their field.

Luis plans to stay in Philadelphia for the time being and continues his work at Cintas, while also working to improve his English. He has even found a speaking partner that he meets every week.

Why Local Economic Development should Consider Immigrant Labor

The U.S. population is getting older as baby boomers enter retirement and the nation’s birth rates are at an all-time low. Furthermore, as U.S.-born workers become more educated – only 7.4 percent of U.S.-born Americans are without a high school diploma – the demand for entry-level jobs must be met. Immigrant labor is aptly suited to fill this need: roughly 80 percent of the 1 million immigrants who enter the U.S. annually are “working age” (classified as ages 18 to 64) compared to only 60 percent of the U.S.-born population. As a result of these trends, immigrant workers now account for 49 percent of all workers in the U.S. workforce without a high-school degree. The demand for lower-skilled labor has and will continue to be met by immigrant workers, an increasingly important and critical part of the U.S. and regional labors.

Assisting working-class immigrants to integrate into the U.S. and regional workforce is a cost effective policy solution compared to the anticipated costs of having those same individuals not participate in the workforce or working in the informal economy—losing the opportunity to build financial history or fully pay taxes. Local economies that put workers’ skills and knowledge to their highest use and that can best integrate the labor pool of working-class immigrants will have competitive advantages over other regions.

Workforce Development Model Programs

The field of workforce development for working-class immigrants and refugees is vast. Comprehensive workforce development programs, provide a wide array of solutions to break down the various barriers to employment through services such as job coaching, advising, and readiness, English classes, financial literacy, and support services (childcare, transportation, asset building, etc.). The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians provides one example. The Welcoming Center began as a centralized resource and employment center for immigrants in Philadelphia. Since its inception, the Welcoming Center has served over 10,000 immigrants from 140 countries worldwide. Because immigrants have comprised nearly 75 percent of the growth in the Philadelphia region’s workforce from 2000 to 2010, the Welcoming Center has been an integral component of the region’s workforce development infrastructure. The Welcoming Center’s programs and practices have produced remarkable results, including higher retention and placement rates for its foreign-born clients, surpassing those of other regional workforce development programs working with the mainstream population.

Industry-specific workforce development programs take advantage of developing industry-specific English language training, connecting with a targeted set of employers for job placement, focusing on a limited number of needed job skills, and developing strategic pathways to help immigrants establish and advance careers within the industry. Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United works to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce. It is a member-based organization operating in 12 cities with 13,000 restaurant workers, 100 employers, and thousands of engaged consumers united for raising restaurant industry standards. While ROC is not limited to serving immigrants specifically, the majority of its members are immigrants and people of color. Foreign-born workers (7.7 percent) are 40 percent more likely than native-born workers (5.3 percent) to be employed in food preparation and service occupations. For many immigrants and refugees, the food service industry is a gateway to the American economy and stepping-stone to achieving the American Dream.

Vocational and workforce English language programs are focused on providing “survival skills” and helping immigrants and refugees achieve conversation fluency in their work environment, just one of the many specific skills they will need to succeed in the workplace. These programs are tailored to serve a sweeping range of participants, including both those seeking to enter the workforce and non-workers for whom

immediate survival, basic English, or the ability simply to talk to a family member’s doctors or teachers are their more pressing priorities. English for New Bostonians (ENB), a public-private-community collaboration, was launched to address the urgent need for increased English language learning opportunities for adult immigrants in Boston. ENB develops new strategies to reach more learners at home, at work, and in the community and reaches 1,200 immigrants annually.

Where to Learn More

Welcoming America’s Guide to Immigrant Economic Development contains a chapter that chronicles the economic opportunities that working-class immigrants can create, as well as eleven other strategies employed by local immigrant economic development initiatives across the country. It is the first guide to ever detail the economic development opportunities and strategies for local economic development leaders, public policymakers, chambers of commerce, immigration advocates, nonprofit organizations, philanthropic leaders, and others who want to build a more prosperous and inclusive economy by welcoming immigrants. You can download your free copy of the guide here.


Thanks to the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians for contributing Luis’ story.


Detroit: Immigrant and Refugee Neighbors Wanted

By Sloan Herrick, Deputy Director, Global Detroit

As I am writing this, just a couple of week after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and amid the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, I can’t help but reflect on how vital it is right now to share across cities, cultures, and countries creative solutions for integration and inclusion–for both refugees and receiving communities. These values must drive our work to restore our cities. To this end, earlier this month, WE Global Network member Global Detroit and a delegation of over 20 Metro Detroit partners visited their Rust Belt neighbors in Cleveland, Ohio to learn about how Cleveland is designing and implementing strategies to integrate and include refugees in the social and economic fabric of their community, so that they can use these insights in Metro Detroit.

Cleveland Group

The delegation from Detroit and hosts from Cleveland at Cleveland City Council

As a national leader in immigrant economic development and a founding member of the WE Global Network, Global Detroit often draws from the talent and expertise of others across the Midwest that are leading the way in inventive and unconventional strategies to foster community and economic development. The study tour included a diverse delegation of Southeast Michigan leaders and national partner Welcoming America and was hosted by new partners made through the WE Global Network.


World map in a Jefferson classroom showing home country of the students in one class.

On our tour, the group visited Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy. This newly-constructed school in a developing neighborhood — not dissimilar to many Detroit neighborhoods and other Rust Belt cities’ neighborhoods — is unique because it services all of the English Language Learner (ELL) students in the Cleveland Public Schools. Nearly all of these students, who make up 25 nationalities and speak a total of 22 languages, have been in the U.S. for less than two years. At the Academy, the delegation was inspired by students from China, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world who, in addition to the regular curriculum and the trials and tribulations of growing up, are learning a brand new language, far from home.

Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy is the anchor of Cleveland’s Dream Neighborhood – which is defined by the half-mile radius that surrounds the school. Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman, along with Councilmen Brian Cummins and Matthew Zone, have committed to revitalizing this neighborhood and providing new opportunities for refugees in Cleveland. They have prioritized demolition funding for the Dream Neighborhood (which encompasses 162 vacant properties), and the Cuyahoga County Land Bank has used data to identify target properties in the foreclosure process to assist in neighborhood planning and housing redevelopment. To date, this partnership has resulted in the demolition of 15 properties in Dream Neighborhood – a strong start to a brighter future in this community.

Cleveland Home DREAM

A home in the DREAM Neighborhood being rehabbed by refugees, for refugees.

This relationship between the Cuyahoga Land Bank and municipal government is underpinned by the important role that a private developer plays in the Dream Neighborhood by purchasing, rehabbing, and renting formerly vacant homes. He also employs refugees in construction jobs to teach them valuable skills that can be translated to other jobs in the workforce. Once the houses are restored, they are rented to refugees to provide quality, affordable, safe places to live.

In addition to the work done in Dream Neighborhood, Cuyahoga County Land Bank is partnering with refugee serving agencies to develop refugee housing and identify refugee tenants and homeowners who often struggle due to lack of credit and rental history. The Land Bank has worked with the International Services Center (ISC) to sell 7 single-family homes that were rehabbed into new homes for refugees.

With what is estimated to be over 20,000 vacant properties in Detroit, we find ourselves sitting on an untapped opportunity to create new pathways that connect immigrants and refugees in search of housing with these vacant homes.

In the second half of our study tour, attendees sat down with members of the Refugee Services Collaborative — a cross-sector of organizations joined together to better serve refugees settling in northeast Ohio. Formed in 2011, the innovative collaborative coordinates the work of its members and builds capacity across the organizations; it is comprised of refugee resettlement agencies, area school systems, and community and faith-based organizations. While not a unique concept, members point to the inclusion of a broad group of entities and the level of collaboration, and the hiring of a third party facilitator as reasons for their success. In 2012 the Collaborative published a groundbreaking economic impact study of refugee resettlement in Northeast Ohio, which found that refugees have helped slow population loss and have had an economic impact of $48 million. An economic development approach to their resettlement efforts has further propelled their work and opened doors to new relationships, sectors, and strategies.

In the wake of the attacks on Paris and Beirut, Global Detroit and its friends and partners in the WE Global Network continue to develop comprehensive and streamlined systems to receive, include, and empower more refugees. The study tour to Cleveland left the Global Detroit team and its partners with a strong sense of direction, inspiration, and partnership to navigate refugee resettlement in Detroit and the region. The delegation will be applying the tools in Detroit to develop innovations that integrate and include refugees and immigrants as valued contributors to Southeast Michigan’s cultural, civic, and social fabric.


Global Detroit thanks its friends and generous hosts – including, Samantha Peddicord of Cleveland City Council Representative Joseph Cimperman’s office, Gus Frangos and Lilah Zautner of the Cuyahoga Land Bank, Danielle Drake of US Together, Darren Hamm of Refugee Response, and Richard Konisiewicz of Global Cleveland – who made the trip to Cleveland a huge success!

This modified post originally appeared at GlobalDetroit.com