Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the National Journal on September 20, 2012.
In the clamor to increase American competitiveness, U.S. immigration policy has emerged as a potential tool favored by many business and political leaders. Recent proposals would retain temporary high-skilled workers as permanent residents, entice foreign entrepreneurs to start and build businesses here, or help international students in high-demand fields gain a residency foothold.
This week, House Republican leaders are hustling to push a vote on a bill that would offer green cards for foreigners graduating from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science and technology, while Democrats have introduced two similar bills in response.
Beyond the monumental task of changing federal law with no shortage of controversy, there is a more sure-footed approach under way in many communities across the country.
Some places are investing in the human capital and economic advancement of legal immigrants already living in their jurisdictions. In those regions, they recognize that education and training is an important pathway to both industry productivity and the mobility of workers. And they understand that boosting the human capital of the labor force must include immigrants and take into account their particular assets and challenges.
Forecasts show shrinking opportunities for lower-skilled workers over the next several years, while the majority of job openings will require workers with at least some postsecondary training. Shortages of skilled workers will be exacerbated by retiring baby boomers, as the leading edge of the generation enters retirement.
Immigrants and their children will become the primary source of labor over the next several decades as the U.S. population continues to age and birthrates remain at replacement level. This population must be part of the solution to rising demand for workers with higher skills and more education.
So how do forward-looking regions do it?
Regional assessments of employer needs have identified shortages in specific industries and occupations, and training programs have been designed to address these gaps. Some of the best initiatives include partnerships between nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and employers to build skills of immigrants in entry-level jobs such as automobile service technicians, certified nursing assistants, health care administrators, pharmacy technicians, and die setters and assembly workers.
These programs–from states like Washington and from cities that include Miami, Portland, Ore., and San Antonio–integrate English language training with skills training. The best ones, such as the Training Futures program, a partnership in suburban Virginia, offer clear career pathways and sufficient support to ensure workers finish their degrees or certificates.
Another regional asset is the pool of immigrants who were educated and gained their work experience abroad. Some of these immigrants face a number of formal and cultural obstacles to getting jobs commensurate with their skills. However, their training is often in high-demand professions in industries such as health care, engineering,and information technology, and that makes them potentially great assets to U.S. communities.
They face U.S.-specific issues, including licensing requirements, navigating the job-search process, discrimination by employers who don’t recognize their credentials, and low English proficiency.
Initiatives under way Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Denver and elsewhere work with high-skilled immigrants to unlock the skills of immigrant professionals who face these barriers by explaining licensing requirements and validating credentials, helping them through the job-search process, educating employers about this pool of workers, and providing technical language training.
The Welcome Back Initiative, for example, operating in 10 locations across the country, works exclusively with health care professionals to retrain and get the credentials needed to practice in the U.S.
Regional economies matter, but state and local governments, nonprofits, educational institutions, and civic and community leaders make a big difference in the economic and labor-market integration of immigrants. With the right pathways and training, many of these immigrants, along with their U.S.-born counterparts, can make an upward transition to better jobs.
Investing in human capital—education, skills, and language training—will drive economic prosperity over the long run. Making sure immigrants are part of this process, even those who need extra help, has to be part of regional growth strategies.