October 17, 2007

Study: Many Immigrants Lack Skills Needed for Local Jobs

Print More

While immigrant populations have traditionally faced many problems when entering into a different culture, a new wave of immigrants are struggling more than their predecessors due to a series of rapid, technological changes altering the structure of the workplace.
In a recent study titled, “Bridging the Gap: Training Needs Assessment of the Immigrant Workforce in Onondaga County,” Maralyn Edid, senior extension associate in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, concluded that many of the immigrants settling in Onondaga County, N.Y. are not adequately prepared to fill the current entry-level positions in the labor market.
Carolyn May, senior economic developer for the Onondaga County Office of Economic Development, whose department commissioned the report, explained the economic situation in the county was such that there was a high level of unemployment, but there was an abundance of entry-level jobs that needed to be filled.
This is a marked departure from the past where immigrants could be expected to fill entry-level jobs with little to no training. However, recent developments in technology and the composition of the immigrant population in Onondaga County have made it more difficult for immigrants to obtain employment.
Carol Hill, an administrator at the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce said, “The market has shifted from manufacturing-based to knowledge-based services and entry-level jobs require at minimum some skill in order to be hired.”
“Entry-level jobs are ever-changing, multifaceted and technologically charged. This is not your father’s generation of beginning jobs,” May added.
Though immigrants in the past were more likely to come from Western European countries such as Germany and Great Britain which generally offered strong education systems and an economy that promoted mobility, the immigrants residing in Syracuse, the economic center of Onondaga County, originate from war-torn countries where access to job training and educational opportunities are scarce.
Edid pointed out the effects of these different upbringings and an immigrant’s job readiness.
“People are more or less prepared to work depending on where you come from. If you come from Germany you probably went through at least high school and know how to read and write … you’ve probably held a job before,” she said. “A person coming from a Western European country has familiarity with an urban environment — they are more work-ready instead of a person living in Sudan who spent the last five years running away from militias trying to survive.”
According to the report, many of the immigrants arrive from Sudan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Somalia. In part, the recent surge of immigrants to Upstate New York can be attributed to the services Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, who have helped relocated more than 15,000 to the area.
The primary barriers to employment that refugees and immigrants face is their lack of proficiency in English or even their own language, inexperience at being supervised, pronounced cultural differences and unstable civic transportation. This makes finding gainful employment especially difficult as many of the immigrants live in impoverished cities and need to commute to the suburbs.
“These are very basic skills people take for granted,” Edid said.
In an area already struggling with a declining labor force, the industries most affected by this problem are the service and manufacturing sectors, which are unable to find employees to fill vacant positions.
What is most challenging about the current situation is employers are unsure how to respond to immigrants needs. Many refugees are eager to acquire skills that offer long term benefits and upward stability. But many of the refugees in the report expressed frustration that the only jobs available were in cleaning and manual labor, desiring the opportunity to learn skills that would make them more marketable.
“Although immigrants, refugees and Puerto Rican migrants often qualify for entry-level positions even with these deficits, they face a slow and uncertain climb up to second-tier jobs; becoming an office assistant or nurse’s aide, for example, requires the type of upskilling that could take six to eight years,” the report stated.
Despite their lack of preparation, the study finds that immigrants are eager to find work and become contributing members of society. Many employers are eager to seize upon this “can-do attitude,” realizing it is easier to teach people new skills than hire someone with a negative approach toward work.
One in employer said of immigrants in the study, “They take pride in their work and are self-motivated.”
As a direct result of Edid’s study, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded a grant to Onondaga County to provide English as second language classes to better assist this population in obtaining jobs.
Hill, who is overseeing the grant, said the plan will include ESL training for five different employers in two different sectors who have expressed an interest in tapping into the immigrant population: health care and manufacturing.
“The hope is that by providing employees with ESL, employers will be able to use these individuals as mentors for new employees with the intention of increasing jobs in that particular sector. The immigrant quality of life would also rise; by increasing their skill level, the employees wage level will also go up,” Hill said.
Another consequence of Edid’s report is that the county is in the early stages of overhauling their transportation system to better provide immigrant and refugee populations with reliable services.
Implementation of these programs aims to help employees transition from low-skill to high-skill jobs as well as facilitate their integration into society, providing a two-fold value to the economy and employees.
According to May, immigrant populations will be working and able to spend money fueling the consumption market, and the composition of the labor force will also attract global companies looking for a diverse workforce where they can promote their products.