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Opinion: To Secure California’s Future, the State Must Invest in its Immigrant Workforce

Salinas, CA: Workers cut and box romaine lettuce. Photo credit: iStock.

In California, we spend so much time considering the future of work, we often ignore a far more critical conversation: the future of workers. In all of the fretting about how tech and robotics will influence life in the coming decades, we lose sight of more immediately pressing threats to our current workforce and way of life. Perhaps the most urgent question for the future of workers: how do investments in equity and opportunity for workers prevail in the face of a staggering imbalance between the rich and poor?

California has achieved tremendous economic success on the backs of working class immigrants, refugees and people of color. Immigrants, for instance, represent more than one third of the workforce in our state, the world’s fifth-largest economy. Immigrant communities were critical to our state’s recovery from the Great Recession, founding 45 percent of all new businesses from 2007 to 2011. Yet rather than honoring these contributions with access to opportunities, many immigrants remain concentrated in low-wage jobs with limited worker benefits and protections. Too often, their wages aren’t enough to provide for themselves and their families and their workplaces lack safety protections.

To create an equitable future for workers, we need to look at how California currently trains and supports people to pursue work opportunities. In our recent report, “Making the Right Investments: Ensuring Workforce Development Programs Work for All Californians,” the California Immigrant Policy Center took a critical look at our state’s workforce development system, an extensive network of job training, education and career services programs. It is supposed to both help employers meet their demand for workers, and help individuals succeed in the workforce and achieve economic mobility.

The state spends more than $6.5 billion dollars annually on workforce development for programs including apprenticeships, internships, career counseling services and resume help, in industries as varied as construction, health care and software programming. But immigrant workers are largely left out of these programs because of significant structural barriers, such as a lack of time and resources to participate as well as language and cultural barriers.

We recently interviewed more than 40 organizations across the state about the intersection between immigrant rights and worker rights and learned that these barriers are numerous, but not insurmountable. The time and resources required to participate in training, language and cultural barriers, and a lack of supportive services could be addressed by targeting investments toward immigrant community needs and by supporting local organizations that have deep trust and relationships with their communities. Many of the community organizations we spoke with provide training outside of work hours, offer childcare and peer support, and have more flexibility for students when their job or family responsibilities pull them away from class.

Another major barrier is a bit more difficult to navigate but still is not impossible: undocumented immigrants, who comprise one in ten workers in California, are not eligible for most workforce development programs because of federal requirements. This may partially explain why less than four percent of those in workforce programs are English language learners, an imperfect but telling proxy for immigrant participation. California can do better, and has the resources to develop statewide workforce programs that are open to anyone regardless of immigration status.

Doing so is necessary, both for the future of our economy and the future of immigrants in our state. By 2025, California is projected to have a shortage of 1.5 million workers who have some post-secondary education. Technological advances in the workplace could also result in more workers being displaced or pushed into lower-wage jobs without significant investments in training for new skills. If California wants to remain competitive, it must ensure its workers have access to training and the education necessary for not only today’s jobs, but tomorrow’s jobs as well. This just isn’t possible without an investment in immigrant communities that allow them to participate.

The burden of that inequality tends to fall on immigrants, refugees and communities of color who are primarily working, yet still unable to make ends meet because of low-wages and the high costs of living. If we commit ourselves to working to end detention and deportation and keep families together, but we do nothing to support those families and help them secure opportunity and dignity, then what have we done?

Workforce development is not just an economic issue; it is an equity issue. All Californians should have access to the tools they need for jobs that allow them to sustain themselves and their families while helping to secure the future of the next generation of Californians.

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