Global Focus on Immigrant Training Needed, Reports Reveal

Some governments provide incentives for employers to invest in immigrant workforce development

By Steve Bates Nov 7, 2013
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Immigrants in the U.S. and other developed nations need better jobs skills, according to an October 2013 report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

It’s not just low-skilled migrants who need assistance, according to Maximizing Potential: How Countries Can Address Skills Deficits within the Immigrant Workforce; rather, the deficit exists among middle-skilled and advanced-skilled employees crossing borders, too.

Employers have a key role to play in improving immigrants’ ability to perform on the job, the report points out. However, policymakers, service providers and migrants themselves also must focus on closing the skills gap. Unfortunately, these groups have few incentives to address skills, the report states.

The institute issued a companion report on migrant-skills issues in the United Kingdom and plans to release similar reports in Germany and Canada soon.

Public and private funding for job training for native employees has been modest in recent years in the U.S., the U.K. and some other developed nations. With immigration a hot-button political issue in many of these countries, job training for migrants is not a major priority.

Nevertheless, some governments have boosted incentives for employers to invest in workforce development for immigrants. “While employer engagement is critical,” the report states, “on-the-job training has important limitations. For example, it is unlikely to suit temporary and flexible workers, many of whom are migrants.”

Balance Short-, Long-Term Needs

The report urges policymakers to balance meeting immediate employer labor requirements with the long-term skills needs of their countries. Its recommendations include:

  • Adopt a flexible and calibrated approach, accommodating the needs of workers with varied skills levels and allowing learners to progress at different speeds.
  • Consult and evaluate widely to ensure that training has long-term benefits and is valued by businesses and learners.
  • Start with relatively easy changes, such as mentoring and support in navigating government programs, while considering wider training system reforms.
  • Reduce costs through techniques such as coordinating language training with vocational and work-experience programs.
  • Adapt mainstream training systems to accommodate diversity for migrants and other workers.

Notably, the report points out that little is known about the long-term effectiveness of programs to boost immigrants’ job skills.

Some Promising Practices, Systems

The report on training in the U.K. concedes that “the skills system in England is institutionally complex.” Migrants’ “access to skills development depends largely on employers’ policies and not on the standards set by the government.” Because many employers depend on low-skilled workers, they “have little incentive to invest in the up-skilling of their workforce.”

“The U.K. has struggled a bit” with training for migrants, said Migration Policy Institute policy analyst Meghan Benton, author of the Maximizing Potential report, in an interview with SHRM Online.

She said the German system of job training “is the envy of the world,” as Germany boasts a vibrant apprenticeship system that creates a ladder for advancement with “a huge buy-in from employers.” However, the system “is not so good for immigrants.”

Some multinational companies, including McDonald’s and Marriott, have developed strong job training programs that focus on language skills, which are critical for immigrants, said Benton. But, she added, it’s “harder for small and medium-sized businesses” to create and maintain such programs.

Although it’s not easy to compare the employment training policies of the U.S. with those in Europe and other parts of the world, Benton said, the U.S. system does one thing particularly well: adult education. The community college system and GED programs represent “the strength of the U.S. model.”

She urges organizations around the globe to adopt more of a “medium- or long-term view on investments in their workforces.” In addition, she suggests that companies collaborate with community colleges and other employers to raise the levels of job skills of immigrants and native employees.

In some parts of the world, programs assist migrants before they leave their native country and after they settle in the country where they plan to work. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration provides such help.

“Interventions should be in place all along” the process of migration, Federico Soda, head of labor migration and human development in the organization’s department of migration management, told SHRM Online. The resource centers for migrants that his organization runs operate as one-stop shops, matching people with jobs and boosting efforts for their qualifications to be recognized. Some centers are in countries from which workers are departing; others operate in destination nations. “Ideally, they will be in both,” Soda said.

He added that the centers are active in parts of Asia and southeast Europe and are being piloted elsewhere by governments concerned about the social costs of immigrants who do not get and keep good jobs and fail to be integrated into their communities.

Steve Bates is a freelance journalist in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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