Facing a labor pool that remains under-prepared for the future of the work, workforce funders have gravitated in a big way toward grants to tackle the skills gap between jobseekers and available jobs. Among other priorities, funders have looked to expand training for well-paying “middle-skill” jobs that too often go unfilled while millions languish in low-paid, dead-end positions.

But there is one factor those conversations tend to elide: unemployment and under-employment among immigrants, many of whom possess skills and education acquired abroad that aren’t being put to full use stateside. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the scale of this “brain waste” is significant. For example, roughly 2 million college-educated immigrants are either unemployed or underemployed. They lose out on nearly $40 billion in annual earnings, with the tax and consumer base suffering as a result. And that doesn’t even account for immigrants with foreign qualifications besides college—like the skilled trades, where demand for labor is acute.

A lot of recent philanthropy has sought to shield immigrants and refugees from harassment, persecution, and deportation, and for good reason. But given the existence of a skills gap—alongside a population of immigrants with underutilized talents—it also makes sense to try to better integrate those newcomers into the economy. That’s where a new grantmaking initiative from World Education Services (WES) comes in. Dubbed the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, the $30 million effort announced its inaugural grants earlier this month. Totaling $1.2 million, the five grants are meant to catalyze better workforce opportunities for immigrants and refugees.

A New Funder Emerges

While World Education Services is a nonprofit, a great deal of its revenue comes from fees it charges clients to evaluate credentials acquired abroad. What that means is that if an immigrant comes to the U.S. or Canada with a degree or training from her home country, WES can assess and verify those qualifications so she can have an easier time finding good employment.

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund, named after WES’ longtime head Mariam Assefa, came into being earlier this year. Its mission mirrors that of its parent. “Newcomers are often held back from meaningful employment or underemployed in survival jobs,” said WES Mariam Assefa Fund Senior Director Monica Munn in a press release. “Our plan is to support organizations that are working to accelerate progress, spur innovation, and permanently dismantle the barriers that hinder economic advancement among immigrants and refugees.”

So where is this initial funding going? Well, according to the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, three of the five grants are meant to “surface and test” ways employers can enhance the career trajectories of newcomers to the United States. One grantee is Jobs for the Future, which is partnering with Tyson Foods to assess how to better support and advance its immigrant employees. Another grantee, Upwardly Global, will work with businesses of varying sizes to figure out how to better find and hire skilled immigrants and refugees. The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians will expand a fellowship program that helps make U.S. work experience available to immigrant jobseekers.

The final two grants went to Mission Driven Finance to develop a fellowship program for immigrant investors, and to Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation to research new financing models to back immigrant-tailored workforce development work.

In some ways, this new funding from the WES Mariam Assefa Fund resembles your standard workforce development fare from corporate funders. WES may be a nonprofit, but its business revolves around integrating newcomers into the workforce. Like more and more corporate funders these days, it’s flexing its philanthropic muscles in ways that closely complement its primary work.

A Necessary Step

Newcomers to the U.S. will be vital to the nation’s continued growth and prosperity. Without them, our demographic future would more closely resemble that of other post-industrial nations with aging, shrinking workforces. Pew Research has found that as Baby Boomers retire and birth rates fall, the American workforce would shrink by nearly 10 million by 2035 without immigration. With immigration—both documented and otherwise—there’s a 10 million gain.

Despite its ongoing history of ugly nativism and anti-immigrant political sentiment, part of which distinguishes the U.S. from other nations is its capacity to absorb waves of newcomers, albeit in fits and starts. The impact of this initial funding from the WES Mariam Assefa Fund may be modest, but attuning employers and the wider workforce development field to the needs of immigrant workers is a necessary step. Doing so will accomplish more than just help close the skills gap—it’ll give new arrivals better economic footing to weather the nativist impulses of American society.

Of course, there’s always the wider question of whether employer-focused workforce development models can do much to tackle the problem of poor-quality jobs. During the mid-century heyday of American manufacturing, workers enjoyed stable middle-class jobs because of labor organizing and complementary policy reform, not because of anything employers were particularly inclined to do.

Even as the demand for middle-skill employees rises, the U.S. economy continues to produce large numbers of low-skill jobs. And while automation could eliminate some of those positions—lending political will to policy solutions like guaranteed income—others remain resilient to the robots. Immigrant labor tends to fill many of those hard-to-automate roles, like cooks, personal care workers, and janitors. If it intends to meaningfully confront the “future of work” among immigrants, philanthropy will need to pair employer-focused strategies with more concerted backing for the new labor movement. Only a few funders are doing so right now.

Share with cohorts