2015 Was an Amazing Year – 2016 Promises Even More

By Steve Tobocman

The beginning of 2015 was such a flurry of WE Global activity that I am having difficulty understanding how we accomplished so much. As we launch into 2016, I look forward to what I expect to be a year of promise, impact, and growth. But as we enter a year of exciting opportunities, I thought it important to reflect on just how much WE Global accomplished in 2015.

group shotHere’s a few of the highlights:

  • City-to-City Visits – 2015 began with a burst of intense networking and relationship-building as 12 WE Global cities participated in 6 city-to-city visits during January and February to learn about the emerging work across the region.



  • Julio“A Day in the Life of an Immigrant Entrepreneur” Story Contest – Partnering with our friends in ethnic media at New American Media, WE Global hosted an 11-city immigrant entrepreneur story contest and published a storybook in February with all 11 winners, including awarding a $1,000 prize (drawn at random) for Julio Zegarra-Ballon, a Peruvian immigrant in St. Louis who renovated a vacant space to create Zee Bee Market and offer beautifully hand-crafted Fair Trade products from around the world.
  • Launch of WE Global Network – In April the Welcoming Economies Global Network (WE Global) officially launched as a program of Welcoming America.
  • PrintImmigrant Heritage Month – In June, WE Global members worked with welcome.us to celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month. WE Global partnered with the Partnership for a New American Economy to highlight the historic contributions of immigrant businesses in the WE Global states by analyzing the “New American” Fortune 500 firms—the Fortune 500 firms started by immigrants or their first generation children—in each state.
  • 20150520_105106-2Developing Vacant Property Solutions – In May, WE Global was asked by the Center for Community Progress to convene the first-ever discussion of immigrants and land banks at the National Reclaiming Vacant Property Conference in Detroit. Nine of the nation’s largest land banks joined WE Global and national partners Partnership for a New American Economy and the Legacy Cities project to discuss the opportunities that can result from connecting land banks and vacant properties with immigrants and refugees. This initial conversation served as the impetus for a forthcoming research report exploring these opportunities in greater detail.
  • Plenary 710x375Dayton Convening – Probably the highlight of the year was the third annual WE Global Convening in Dayton in July keynoted by the White House’s Felicia Escobar. Some 300 attendees from 25 Midwest communities attended the gathering which was characterized by the relationships that were built among practitioners. Welcome Dayton did stellar work as our host and the convening coincided with the release of new research by the Partnership for a New American Economy about how Dayton has benefitted from Welcome Dayton and the growth of its immigrant population
  • Guide-to-IED1-231x300Guide to Immigrant Economic Development – In conjunction with the Dayton convening in July, Welcoming America released its Guide to Immigrant Economic Development written by WE Global Co-Chair Steve Tobocman (with tremendous help from Global Detroit staff, as well as Welcoming America’s Susan Downs-Karkos and Rachel Peric). The Guide includes 13 chapters to help local economic development agencies, chambers, mayors, city councils, nonprofit organizations, and advocates develop innovative programming that integrate immigrants and refugees into their local economies to create jobs and growth that impact the entire region.  
  • CEOs for Cities, National Immigrant Integration Conference, and other speaking engagements – Throughout the year, WE Global was invited to present the exciting work going on throughout the Network to a wide variety of audiences, including CEOs for Cities, the National Immigrant Integration Conference, refugee resettlement groups, and even a state health endowment. In 2016 we hope to connect our innovative perspective with more diverse audiences of economic development actors, business leaders, and local officials.

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.


Welcoming America’s Guide to Immigrant Economic Development: International Student Retention

Skyins-self-business-portraitWhen you meet Xiaoyu (“Skyin”) Yin, a Chinese international student who graduated with a Master’s Degree in Advertising from Michigan State University in 2013, you are grabbed instantly by her enthusiasm, charm, wit, and intellect. “I came to the United States to see a different world,” Skyin says. “I’m glad Michigan is what I found . . . The opportunities here in Michigan are unique. I’m from China. Michigan is my second home. I am proud to call myself a ‘Michigander.’”

Skyin’s journey to her current position as the Communications and Experiential Learning Coordinator at the Office of International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University wasn’t always easy. With the help of the Michigan Global Talent Retention Initiative, one of the nation’s only international student retention programs, Skyin was able to work for Message Makers, an award-winning global event planning, video production, and instructional design company in Lansing, accessing the Optional Practical Training (OPT) benefit of her international student visa during her first year after graduation. She was even a featured speaker in Michigan Governor’s Talent Summit (see picture below).

SkyinAt Message Makers, Skyin provided valuable insight into Chinese markets and customers, as well as contributing to the company’s local work. The firm valued her contributions so much that they paid a lawyer and accompanying filing fees to secure an H-1B visa for Skyin to extend her employment, but unfortunately, like for most applicants, the application was rejected because of the high demand for H-1B visas. Fortunately for Skyin and Michigan’s economy, Skyin learned of an opening at Michigan State University (universities are exempt from the H-1B cap) and after multiple rounds of interviews, Skyin was offered the position. As a result, the University would file a new H-1B petition on her behalf and she would be allowed to continue working in the United States. She is now a contributing taxpayer to the Michigan economy, and enriches her community and the social contours of the region through the network of friends and neighbors she built during her time in Lansing.

The Brookings Institution estimates that the number of F-student visas (by far the most common international student visa for higher education) grew from 110,000 to 524,000 between 2001 and 2012—a nearly five-fold increase in little more than a decade. Two-thirds of the international students pursuing a bachelor’s or higher degree are in STEM fields or business, management and marketing fields versus 48 percent of domestic students. The Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership estimates that international students and graduates comprise:

  • 50 percent of all new U.S. Ph.D.’s in engineering;
  • 45 percent of all new U.S. Ph.D.’s in life sciences, physical sciences, and computer sciences;
  • 40 percent of all new U.S. master’s degrees in computer sciences, physical sciences, and engineering; and
  • 25 percent of all practicing physicians.

In addition to enriching cultural and academic exchange and internationalism at universities and colleges, international students have a significant positive economic impact on the local communities where they study. NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, estimates that their tuition, fees, and living expenses meet the technical definition of an export product and collectively account for more than $24 billion of consumption on an annual basis, supporting 313,000 jobs as a result of this spending.

International Student Retention Model Programs

Only recently has the opportunity to retain these talented international students caught the eye of economic development and public policy leaders. Global Detroit oversees the Michigan Global Talent Retention Initiative (GTRI), a program that includes 32 Michigan colleges and universities, as well as over 60 Michigan employers. The program was launched in 2011 to retain this talent and to help fill unmet talent needs. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has endorsed the program, noting, “The message to international students who take part in GTRI events is simple. Michigan wants you! Connecting highly skilled international students with employers and giving them the opportunity to work and live in a beautiful, vibrant state will help create a strategic advantage for our state and strengthen the Michigan economy.”

The Ohio Board of Regents is not far behind, recently issuing a report that contends boosting Ohio’s retention of international students to national averages would “generate almost $100 million in the state’s economy and support more than 1,000 new jobs.” The Board of Regents is working with Governor John Kasich and the local economic development infrastructure to design and implement an international student retention program.

The St. Louis Mosaic Project, a regional initiative to capitalize on the economic benefits of increasing the foreign-born population, runs a Global Talent Hiring Program focused on six strategies to help the region retain international students. The program includes engaging both the international student services and career services offices of eight local universities, along with the Regional Business Council, to share best practices and identify collaborative opportunities. In September 2015, St. Louis Mosaic worked with a local university to publish a report on international student retention that included seven specific strategy recommendations.

Where to Learn More

Welcoming America’s Guide to Immigrant Economic Development contains a chapter that chronicles the economic opportunities that international student retention can create, as well as eleven other strategies employed by local immigrant economic development initiatives across the country. It is the first guide detailing 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. You can download your free copy of the guide here.