Workforce: To Drive Innovation, Workforce Development Plans Must Address Equity

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This post was written by OneAmerica Policy Associate Vy Nguyen.

Economic security and upward mobility are the cornerstones of the American Dream. Whether someone has a long family history in the U.S., or they are a new American, we all have a deeply ingrained belief that we can change our future through dedication and hard work. Yet equitable access to opportunity, or lack thereof, can often determine one’s ability to find success.

For many immigrants and refugees, access to opportunity is the key to integration. Most start their journey by enrolling in classes to learn English and many continue onto classes that will help them enter the job market. For those who will naturalize, citizenship and civics classes help prepare for this important step in becoming American.

Access to these classes and services are vital for many immigrants and refugees to contribute fully to their communities and our economy. Recognizing the importance of this investment, the federal and local government has dedicated resources and thousands of staffers to support workforce development and adult education. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), signed into law on July 22, 2014 moves workforce development and adult education services into the 21st century.

WIOA strives for alignment in workforce development and adult learning outcomes to ensure that everyone accessing services is “career and/or college ready.” While ambitious, the braiding of outcomes between adult learning and workforce development fails to recognize the diverse needs of immigrants and refugees who need the services the most.

Where individuals could enroll in a civics class or an English class, those accessing these classes must now be on track to a workforce development outcome. This limits access to essential skills developed in the classroom for some of the most vulnerable and high need immigrants and refugees and their families; limiting access to skills development for many immigrants and families threatens economic security which can impact health, upward mobility, the ability to become engaged citizens, and even cause negative education outcomes in children, contributing to the opportunity gap. The question of whether this is equitable access or not must be raised.

This re-boot of workforce development policy and programs represents a missed opportunity to strengthen equity and gain a deeper understanding of diverse immigrant and refugee populations. Without a better understanding of who potential clients are and what they need, workforce development and adult education services cannot be designed to fit the needs of their target population.

For example: the education levels of new Americans is increasingly diverse; recent census data tells us that nearly 1 in 3 of foreign-born adults arrive with college degrees yet the skills and talent of these educated professionals are not assessed upon their arrival. Many, sadly, are not made aware that resuming careers they loved is possible (with a lot of hard work and luck) and must take survival jobs that are often low-wage with little room for advancement. This issue is called brain waste and Washington State has tens of thousands of individuals whose expertise and skills are not being utilized by our economy because there is little infrastructure that recognizes their abilities and helps bridge their skills in a meaningful way.

Immigrants and refugees are an important part of our social and economic fabric. What’s more, supporting the integration of individuals and families has strengthened communities and generated shared prosperity for all across the country. Nearly 40% of Fortune 500 companies have been founded by an immigrant or their children, including companies like Costco, Nordstrom, and Amazon which call Washington home. Immigrants are also credited with revitalizing neighborhoods in many cities as they set down roots, start businesses that often serve their neighbors, and fight urban blight with a new sense of community. But first, we must ensure that access to opportunity and equity is at the forefront of planning for workforce development and adult education policies and programs that help so many on their path to integration. Ensuring access to opportunity is a way to recognize Washington’s new Americans as assets and a smart investment for our communities that will have many returns and rewards for our neighborhoods as well as our economy.

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