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The overlooked workers who could solve the labor crisis

February 18, 2022, 12:50 PM UTC
Despite being legally authorized to work, Afghan holders of the Special Immigrant Visa (a program uniquely developed for Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government or military) are 28% unemployed and another 22% are underemployed, compared to the 7.8% average unemployment rate in the U.S.
Kent Nishimura - Getty Images

Whether you call it the Great Resignation or the Big Quit, employers are woefully short of the workers they need to run their businesses and provide the goods and services we expect without delay.

More than 38 million people left their jobs last year. Amazingly, that’s nearly one out of every four workers in the U.S. This has contributed to a shortfall of 11 million workers needed to fill open roles. Without workers to fill these gaps, we are likely to face even more supply shortages, longer waits for goods and services, and higher costs than we’re facing today.

As employers scramble to fill these openings, it’s crucial for them to realize that there is a talented and high-potential group of individuals who can help alleviate the worker crisis. 

Immigrants represented more than 17% of the workforce in 2019 and there are a total of 44.7 million immigrants in the U.S. This includes 2.5 million refugees who have resettled here since 1980 and 75,000 Afghans who have arrived since the U.S. withdrawal from the country in August. Despite these numbers and the fact that all of our new Afghan neighbors are legally authorized to work, immigrants have higher unemployment rates compared to the average American.

In 2020, the unemployment rate for immigrants was 9.2%, compared to the 7.8% average unemployment rate in the U.S. It’s even higher for Afghans holding the Special Immigrant Visa (a program uniquely developed for Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government or military), with 28% unemployed and another 22% underemployed.

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said, employers need to hire more immigrant workers to help alleviate the worker shortage crisis and fully grow the U.S. economy. We couldn’t agree more.

Why haven’t businesses hired more refugees and immigrants?

One major challenge is the language barrier that many refugees and immigrants face when they arrive in the U.S., prompting employers to overlook this population as potential employees. All too often, businesses see language proficiency as a prerequisite for performing well on the job.

This is a common misconception. Many major companies have found that immigrants and refugees can be great employees while learning English. In fact, companies that have invested in English language learners have built a loyal and engaged workforce as they walk the talk on diversity, equity, and inclusion–bringing benefits to company culture and demonstrating their values to their customers.

Some of the best solutions for language barriers in the workplace have been developed at the local level through the creativity and innovation of workers and managers who want to support the success of their peers and colleagues. Our organizations, Tent and JFF, have released a new guide that gathers best practices for companies on how to help workers who are still building language fluency thrive in their roles.

Chobani, a leading food company in the U.S., estimated that, at last count, approximately 30% of their manufacturing workforce was made up of immigrants and refugees who speak at least 20 different native languages. This diverse workforce has the cumulative impact of bringing on even more diverse workers, as Chobani employees from similar cultural backgrounds act as translators and help to train their colleagues for new jobs in their native languages.

Nine years ago, Chobani hired a refugee from eastern Africa named Eyasu at its facility in Twin Falls, Idaho. Eyasu knew little English when he started in his new job, but since then he has been promoted several times and is now a production supervisor leading a multilingual team of nearly 40 people.

Tyson Foods has had similar success. The company employs community liaisons who work to bring on more immigrants into their workforce–many with lower language proficiency. These community liaisons also act as a link between the communities of local language learners and their managers, to ensure that the company is aware of things like culturally specific holidays.

These are just two of many examples where companies have benefited from hiring refugees and immigrants.

With a record number of jobs to fill and high consumer demand for companies to meet the moment on diversity and corporate social responsibility, language barriers should not be an excuse for businesses to not hire refugees and immigrants. Now is the time to invest in this incredibly talented, resourceful, and skilled talent pool.

Laura Roberts is a director at the Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit focused on equal opportunity for economic advancement. Yaron Schwartz is U.S. lead at the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a network of over 200 major companies committed to integrating refugees in their host communities.  

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