Building the New High Road: Report on U.S. Immigrants and Workforce Development

Tuesday November 22, 2022

Immigrants and refugees play a crucial role in the U.S. workforce, especially in growth industries including tech and healthcare, yet they continue to be overrepresented in low-wage occupations. With a desire to learn more about the efforts to address this gap by supporting more inclusive employer practices, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund launched an open call for grant applications from organizations working to directly engage employers to shift talent practices, pilot training programs, and more. Through this funding opportunity, we ultimately awarded $2.8 million in grants to 20 groups in the U.S. and Canada. 

The “open call” nature of this funding opportunity also gave us the chance to hear from more than 130 organizations working to support immigrant and refugee workers. Through their applications, organizations shared information about the communities they’re serving, the range of solutions they’re testing, how they’re measuring success, and how they’re centering leaders from immigrant communities in their organizations and through their work.  

The benefits and drawbacks of open calls are often debated within philanthropy. As part of our commitment to honoring the time and effort that organizations spent applying, we aim to learn from the entire applicant pool to deepen our knowledge as well as improve our funding practices. We are also committed to sharing what we learn with other funders, practitioners, and more.  

We engaged the Project on Workforce at Harvard to analyze the data from U.S. applicants as part of their Workforce Almanac, which aims to create better, open-access systemic data and evidence about the workforce development sector. Director of the Project on Workforce, Rachel Lipson, shared with Working Nation, “We felt like there wasn’t enough attention to that issue [of immigrants in workforce] right now, and we needed to understand better in the ecosystem. How can we create a win-win for everyone? How can we create better support so that immigrants are able to realize their potential in the economy?” 

The Project on Workforce team analyzed and coded the U.S. applicant organizations’ data from the Fund’s open call. Below are highlights from their research into the field of organizations supporting more inclusive employer practices for immigrants and refugees: 

  • Job quality is a growing priority. Over half of the organizations focus on increasing wages, career advancement, or creating a safe and inclusive work environment.  
  • Programs that applied for funding were 50 percent more likely to focus on newcomers than longer-term residents. 
  • Nearly half of new arrivals in the U.S. have college degrees, but only 5 percent of applicant organizations focused on helping immigrants translate their credentials and experience from other countries.  
  • Job-specific training was one aspect of applicant programs, but many organizations are focusing on other needs, such as reducing discrimination against immigrants, building inclusive spaces, and advocacy efforts to change policy. 

Based on this research, we also gathered some important insights into the impact and limitations of this funding opportunity, including our limited geographic reach. Overall, we received the majority of applications from organizations on the coasts, and we saw the following significant geographic gaps in our applicant pool: the Sun Belt region – states in the Southeast and Southeast of the U.S. — was overwhelmingly under-represented; we received zero applications from organizations in Florida; and only 3 percent of applications were from Texas. We are committed to deepening our outreach in these geographies for future open calls. 

We hope this research inspires fellow funders, practitioners, employers, and nonprofits alike to continue to strengthen economic inclusion for immigrants and refugees. 

To learn more, read the complete report, Building the New High Road: Immigrants and Workforce Development, and read Working Nation’s coverage of the report

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