Integrating Migrants into the Workforce

October 7, 2016

This second AGI conference focused on the theme of workforce education will convene municipal leaders and immigration and integration experts to talk about both the challenges and commitments to integrating immigrants and refugees into the workforce. In June 2015, the U.S. Department of Commerce joined with the Departments of Education and Labor to sign an agreement with Germany to coordinate workforce development and apprenticeship opportunities in the United States. This agreement will help build partnerships with German employers and explore cooperation in the area of career and technical training and serves as an example of exchanging best practices in workforce development. Bringing together nonprofit, educational, corporate, and federal and local government actors from the United States and Germany, this conference will highlight both countries’ strengths of educating the workforce (Germany) and integrating newcomers into society (United States) and provide valuable lessons for both sides in their efforts to successfully integrate immigrants and recent refugees into their societies.

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Panel 1: How Germany Turns Refugees into Employees

Dr. Brigitte Scheuerle is Managing Director for Vocational Training and Continuing Education, Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Frankfurt, Germany. The Chamber supervises companies that offer traineeships, organizes examinations for trainees and instructors, and issues certificates. It also oversees the national Vocational Training Act (VET), guaranteeing standards and quality by organizing and certifying VET based on membership. The German economy spends €30 billion per year on vocational training, with over 1.6 million trainees and approximately 500,000 companies providing training. This is made possible through public/private partnerships across local and federal agencies and private sectors.

In September 2015, these partners sought to create a sustainable project to integrate refugees into the workforce. The project combined practical training with language training, and companies committed to pay the integration agency in order to create three types of programs. The first two involve vocational training, either direct access or a ten-month introductory training. The introductory training provides structured educational training to young people who need it as a pathway to vocational training. The third program is direct access to work.

The four-step process began in January 2016 with 360 refugees expressing interest to begin the qualification process. One-hundred-eighty refugees proceeded to steps 2 and 3: occupation days, which provided insights into the working environment, and psychological/aptitude tests, which discovered skills and talents. By August, 47 refugees began work, introductory qualification, or vocational training combined with language training. This meant that 180 refugees received career orientation and 47 began jobs or training. Others were assisted to next steps. Companies took responsibility by financing the coordination and boosting the public/private partnership.

Despite promising results, the program still faces challenges. It is difficult to find refugees with a basic knowledge of German; level B1 is required for the training programs. The work environment, integration, and qualification structures in Germany are unknown to refugees. Refugees and companies both must confront extremely complex legal frameworks in order to participate in these programs.

Susanne Mertens is a volunteer language and integration teacher for refugees in the city of Wiesbaden, Germany. Wiesbaden has a population of 250,000 and registered 1,800 refugees in 2015. After they apply for asylum, newly arrived refugees can also apply for a federally funded integration course, however, the integration course of 600-900 hours does not start until asylum has been granted. To bridge the weeks or months it takes for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration and Flüchtlinge, BAMF) to approve an asylum application, active members of German civil society step in. The voluntary engagement that exists in many places in Germany provides refugees from countries like Syria, Iran, Eritrea, and Afghanistan with German language instruction, civic education about their host city, as well as basic rules and cultural traditions.

Ms. Mertens donates her free time at the Volunteer Center Wiesbaden (Freiwilligenzentrum Wiesbaden), which offers language and integration classes for those refugees who are not part of the federal system yet. These initiatives are funded by the federal government as well as by private funds. Learning a complex language like German is a tall order for newly arrived refugees who have experienced loss and trauma. However, German language acquisition is vital for refugees to integrate successfully in German society and the workplace. The volunteers across Germany provide a vital service to the refugees in that they become a mentor beyond teaching culture and language. They become persons of trust the refugees can turn to for questions regarding the school choice for their children, medical doctors, their skill development and workforce options, and to navigate the jungle of German bureaucracy.

A plethora of voluntary engagements, in addition to the programs the federal government has created, exist all across Germany, including language and culture classes as well as so-called “godfather/godmother” programs for refugees. They fulfill an important role for the successful language, social, and economic integration of the refugees. In Ms. Mertens’ experience, mastering the German language and having the opportunity to engage with members of the local community are paramount for the successful integration of newcomers into society and the workforce.

Katarzyna Rogacka-Michels presented how the Association of Immigrant Entrepreneurs, ASM (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Selbständiger Migranten e.V.), a non-profit organization in Hamburg, Germany, supports immigrant entrepreneurs and young people with an immigrant background wishing to enter the dual vocational training system. They also work with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) open to employing qualified immigrants and parents of young people who are seeking vocational training. Hamburg has a high number of foreigners and asylum seekers. In 2015, 262,252 foreign citizens and 22,299 asylum seekers resided in Hamburg, and 7,682 asylum seekers registered in the first half of 2016.

ASM offers a variety of programs for refugees and permanent residents under the age of 25 seeking vocational training. Two programs, “Outlook on Dual Vocational Training” and “Participation in Dual Vocational Training,” provide refugees and permanent residents under the age of 25 with assistance in preparation for their apprenticeships, including application and interview support. They provide placements in apprenticeships in a variety of sectors, and provide network and support opportunities to young people at regular apprentice get-togethers. “Participation in Dual Vocational Training” also provides coaching during the apprenticeship and advises companies. The coordinating office especially works with SMEs in Hamburg and encourages them to hire young people with immigrant backgrounds and refugees. Not only do they support SMEs’ potential apprentices, they also encourage those with an immigrant background and refugees to set up their own businesses and provide consulting services for startups. Since 2007, ASM has worked with 1,000 companies and placed 1,000 young people in the Dual Vocational Training System.

ASM attributes its success to several internal and external advantages. Fourteen of its 18 employees are from an ethnic minority background, and 14 different languages are spoken in the office. This diversity of language, intercultural skills, and experience is a great advantage when working with its target groups. Eight hundred of the 1,000 companies ASM works with are owned by people with an immigrant background, and their contacts come from a variety of sectors. It is also committed to the public/private partnership and works closely with the Hamburg Chambers of Commerce. This connection to various communities, reputation as a bridge-builder between immigrants and public and private sector, and the adaptability of communication staff provide trust for immigrant communities that allows ASM to work effectively.

In partnership with the public sector, ASM meets monthly with the Hamburg Chambers of Commerce, and a director from the Chambers is actively involved with ASM’s management board. ASM also acts as a liaison between companies and the Chambers, referring companies to the appropriate offices, co-organizing events, and cooperating with Hamburg’s Coordinating Office of Dual Vocational Training and Migration.

This partnership with the Hamburg Chambers of Commerce has been especially important for ASM’s success integrating refugees into the workforce. The Chambers refer refugees interested in setting up a business to ASM. The two organizations cooperate on the project “Work and Integration for Refugees” (WIR) and together participate in information events and open days about the Dual Vocational Training System and other public relations activities.

Panel 2: U.S. Immigration and Workforce Integration

Kathi McLendon, Dean College and Career Readiness at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte, NC, gave an overview of how CPCC prepares immigrants for their integration into the workforce. In 2012, Mecklenburg County in Charlotte, NC, became a majority minority county due to a large influx of immigrants and refugees. CPCC’s Department of College and Career Readiness helps roughly 8,000 students per year become ready for work and college. About 1,000 of those students have an immigrant background and 45 percent of them are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. To serve this diverse group of students (some of whom are illiterate, some are college educated, more than 50 percent do not have a high school diploma, and the majority of them are unemployed), CPCC has developed a menu of options. CPCC has long valued the opportunities apprenticeship programs bring. A large percentage of ESL students need pre-work to go into apprenticeship programs. CPCC helps prepare them.

CPCC has developed three areas:

  • Work Foundations
  • Working in America
  • Pathways to Careers

Work Foundations has four different programs: 1) English Essentials, designed for immigrants with limited English proficiency, offered at four CPCC campuses and community sites. 2) English in Schools, which gives parents of immigrant children enrolled in public elementary and middle schools the opportunity to take English classes there. 3) Refugee Education, which is designed for newly arrived refugees and partners with a number of community agencies that provide support services. 4) English at Work, immigrants who are employed in entry-level jobs can take English classes at the work site.

Working in America is a sixteen-week program that allows immigrants to learn about career options, soft skills certification, English for the world of work, digital literacy, and provides continued academic and advising support, internships or job shadowing, or an eight-week occupation training program in plumbing, construction, hospitality, or culinary.

Pathways to Careers provides language classes and certificate programs for middle skill level jobs. Students are enrolled in sixteen-week-long occupational training programs in high demand areas, such as plumbing, nursing assistant, construction, office administration, or welding, and receive English and math instruction and high school credentials as well as A+ certification.

Despite the program’s success there are several challenges that can be identified. Many of the immigrant students that come to CPCC are lower functioning refugees and recent refugees who struggle with English. CPCC has started a pilot project that provides a certificate program in those students’ native language (e.g., Arabic). English language acquisition is mastered later. The idea is to harness the existing skills of these immigrants as quickly as possible. Employers in the Charlotte region have a long tradition of embracing refugees and providing training and a career path for them. However, sometimes refugees find other jobs in the area that do not require language skills but pay more than the training programs. In the long run, these immigrants are stuck in low-skilled jobs. Undocumented immigrants do not have access to cost-prohibitive college-level classes. Since they are not allowed to work, these career and skill advancing options are not available for them.

Heide Spruck Wrigley is a Senior Researcher for Language, Literacy, and Learning at Literacywork International, an independent social science research firm focused on education and training for immigrant youth and adults, and a non-resident fellow at Migration Policy Institute. Dr. Wrigley described several local efforts in the United States that are designed to promote the civic, linguistic, and economic integration of immigrant populations. With the patchwork of rules that exist in the United States concerning language and integration efforts, these local efforts are important tools to further the development of a skilled workforce that is increasingly diverse. The prospects to be successful in the U.S. labor market for adults with limited English skills, typically immigrants or refugees, are slim. Existing resources for language and job training services cannot fulfill the demand for these programs. Similar to the German experience, providing language, cultural, and job-specific skills to immigrants and refugees simultaneously is crucial for their successful integration into the workforce.

  • Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs: Ready to Work. This program was designed for individuals who face barriers to learning English and gaining employment and combines English as a Second Language classes with computer literacy instruction, job training, and case management to help immigrants gain job readiness skills. Individuals who are ready to work but need to learn English can attend classes at no cost.
  • Washington State: I-BEST. Washington’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program (I-BEST) was pioneered by the state’s community and technical colleges and teaches students literacy, work, and college-readiness skills so they are able to move through school faster and into gainful employment. Two teachers in the classroom provide job training and basic skills in reading, math, or the English language. Students learn by doing and receive the help they need while studying in their career field. The I-BEST model challenges the traditional notion that students move through a sequence of basic education before they can start working on certificates or degrees.
  • McDonald’s: English Under the Arches. The McDonalds corporation created this comprehensive education strategy with multiple programs nation-wide to help their employees grow and learn. Employees may need help finishing high school, earn an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, or learn English. The program meets the specific needs of the employees. Launched in April 2015, more than 5,000 restaurant employees in the U.S. have enrolled in the program. This is an example of an industry that invests in the long-term learning of its employees.
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: English Innovations. In 2015, OneAmerica, with a consortium of national partners and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched a multi-state program to create educational opportunities for undocumented youth. The initiative blends English language learning instruction with a digital literacy component and focuses on individuals 16-31 who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and need both English instruction and legal assistance to obtain education and work authorization, and to avoid deportation.
  • SEIU 775: Bilingual Homecare Aides. The union represents more than 40,000 long-term care workers who provide quality in-home care, nursing home care, and adult day health services in Washington State and Montana. Limited English learners are given the opportunity to grow skills in different languages. Bilingual homecare aides bring cultural competence to work in the community without perfect English language skills.
  • Carlos Rosario – International Public Charter School. The school provides education to the diverse adult immigrant population of Washington, DC. It combines ESL instruction with life and technology skills, health education, parenting, civics, and workforce training. It serves more than 2,500 students annually and supports adult learners in their integration into society and the workforce.

Henning O. Bruns, General Manager, Daimler Trucks North America, spoke about vocational training in Germany and the long tradition at the Daimler corporation to train its workforce. In recent years, it has become a challenge to fill many of the high-skilled positions in German companies. The question is whether any of these vacancies can be filled by recent refugees.  The challenges are numerous: language skills, work authorization, technical skills, and certification. Without language and skills qualification, economic success for refugees and immigrants cannot be achieved. The Daimler corporation offers many programs to educate people regarding vocational training and internships. This is particularly important in the U.S. where an alternative to the four-year college path is still resisted. Vocational training in the U.S. is not perceived as a valuable alternative to a college degree. This needs to change. Daimler Trucks North America employs a few refugees, but the company can only hire individuals who have legal authorization to work. Internships serve as a talent pipeline for future employees and should be promoted. The company does provide language training for those employees who are still struggling with the language.

Panel 3: Federal Policy and Response

The third and final panel focused on the federal policy in place in Germany and the United States to integrate migrants into the workforce. Germany and the United States face different challenges and workforce structures; direct comparison is risky. However, representatives from Germany and United States both emphasized the effectiveness and importance of local and regional actors in workforce education and the federal governments’ commitment to support and bolster their work rather than interfere.

Marc Altenburg is Policy Officer at the “Project Group for Refugees” for the German Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Berlin and presented the responses of the German government to the refugee crisis, in particular, accelerated asylum procedure, language investments, and integration investments. Mr. Altenburg identified access to labor market, language, and labor training as the three main aspects of integration, but that these will not address other humanitarian crises that refugees carry with them in Germany.

Access to the labor market in Germany depends on qualifications and legal status. Qualifications of refugees are wildly diverse. Not only are they diverse, but due to the situation in their home countries, they often do not have official documentation to confirm their qualifications. Many refugees are highly educated and highly skilled and do not want to enter a low skilled profession, which is not future proof. These lower skilled jobs also have other high barriers to entry; many German and EU regulations require that companies provide proof that refugees are not taking opportunities away from German or EU citizens. The Labor Ministry is working to lower these barriers to entry.

Work is key for integration, and language skills are key to work. Currently, the government offers language courses for a few months, but these courses are not part of the overall conceptual framework. Integration courses offer mostly language instruction and are only offered to those refugees that have a good chance of being granted asylum in Germany.

Mr. Altenburg admitted that there are many barriers to entry into the German labor market for refugees. However, he emphasized that doing nothing was not an option, and while the current politics cannot and do not please everyone, he sees them as important first steps to better policies. Ultimately, integration will have a better chance for success if refugees are treated as everyone else in the labor market.

Lul Tesfai, Director of Policy in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education, presented a variety of programs offered by the education department for immigrants to get more workforce training. In November 2014, a White House task force developed the Federal Immigrant Integration Policy. It identified three pillars of integration: linguistic, civic, and economic.

The education department has a variety of federal programs available to a variety of immigrant workers. The federal government recognizes that workers have different skill levels, educational backgrounds, and needs and that there is no one comprehensive program to address all their needs. Challenges and barriers vary across sectors and geographic regions, requiring differentiated approaches, and the education department provides funds to states, which in turn develop their own workforce integration strategies.

Ana Hageage, Senior Policy Advisor for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, echoed that the government is committed to providing resources to states, which often know needs better than the federal government. Along with the education department, the Department of Labor was part of the White House Task Force on New Americans in 2014, and within the task force the department focuses on the economic integration aspect and supporting skill development and protecting new American workers. The framework is a very de-centralized system that supports states, localities, NGOs, and educational institutions.

Through these multiple partnerships and programs, job seekers can gain additional training and credentials and companies have access to a better educated and more efficient workforce. While the department does not have many programs designed specifically for immigrants, it invests in programs whose benefits are inclusive of immigrants. This is because it is easier to get funding for programs that benefit people more broadly, rather than any specific group. However, there are many programs that address the needs of new Americans, such as English language, postsecondary occupational learning, contextualized language acquisition in career and technical educations, and training in in-demand occupations.

President Obama has been committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships in the United States and has challenged the country to double the number of apprenticeships within five years. Apprenticeship funding has been appropriated for all job seekers, but some labor department grantees have committed to expanding apprenticeships in new and growing industries and serving under-represented populations. Another portion of funding will support innovative strategies that bring underrepresented populations into apprenticeship programs.

Representatives from both the United States and Germany recognized the value of local and regional actors. In both cases, the countries provide funds and frameworks so that more knowledgeable and localized actors can support workforce integration of migrants. In the German case, the federal government is especially involved in helping refugees get access to German language classes, as there is no incentive for employees to hire if a refugee does not speak German. However, Mr. Altenburg emphasized the importance of many volunteers throughout the country who have been helpful where the government has been overwhelmed and unable to provide resources. American panelists emphasized that funding for workforce education is ambiguous as possible in order to be accessible to the most people. Because of the blanket language and the investment the U.S. workforce puts in to workforce education (four times that of the federal government), the federal government’s priorities are to enforce civil rights, provide monetary resources, and lift up best practices.

Contact Ms. Elizabeth Caruth at with any questions.



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