Over the past few decades, cities in upstate New York have looked to immigrant and refugee workers to support the region’s economic growth. But in recent years, that population has started to shrink, making it more difficult for local businesses to find diverse candidates to fill open positions. In an attempt to close the gaps, officials are now offering job placement opportunities and English language training to attract talent to New York’s upstate cities.
It’s a dynamic that is all too familiar for employers in a so-called “Goldilocks” economy — where economic growth is tempered by low unemployment, churn is on the rise, and HR managers often struggle to find “just right” candidates.
But a tight labor market is also encouraging employers to make new and significant training investments in job candidates who might not possess the required skills at the time of hire. And savvy employers have discovered that helping employees to build their English skills helps to not only recruit, but also retain critical talent.
With good reason: according to the Migration Policy Institute, more than 20 million US adults have limited proficiency in English, yet the country meets the educational needs of less than four percent of them. Together, that population represents some 15% of our workforce, a massive pool of untapped talent for employers. Americans who lack English proficiency are not necessarily uneducated; however, language and cultural barriers often mask in-demand skills and competencies.
In fact, research suggests that there are nearly 2 million unemployed or underemployed immigrants and refugees in the United States who are college-educated. Since working-age adults with limited English proficiency earn 25% to 40% less than their English proficient peers, investing in English presents a profound opportunity for employers to not only close skills gaps, but spark economic mobility for a workforce that has been historically marginalized.
Until recently, closing English proficiency gaps wasn’t an especially promising approach to building the corporate talent pipeline. English classes for would-be workers conjured images of dusty CD-ROMs or language learning gone awry — rife with translation and conjugation; flashcards and monotonous drills. Language acquisition was inconsistent, ineffective, and painstakingly slow.
But relatively recent advances in the field of learning — paired with online and mobile delivery tools – -now enable language learning that is faster and more effective than in decades past. And the sort of data that underpins familiar personalization engines used by Amazon or Netflix allows employers to tailor language learning in ways that are highly personalized and contextually relevant.
Rather than learning new words and phrases in a vacuum, employees can blend the acquisition and application of new language skills while on the job. Language learning plans can be tailored to an individual’s needs and aspirations using rapid cycle, dynamic assessments. Participation in traditional classroom training or online courses is being eclipsed by learning that is continuous and job-embedded.
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Research suggests that language instruction that incorporates context is far more effective than instruction that only provides students with definitions. Language learning is most effective when it includes real-life experiences and day-to-day tasks that can allow for deep processing and understanding. For working adults, language acquisition can also be fueled by the incentives associated with economic and career aspirations.
One example can be seen in the Mohawk Valley region of upstate NY, where employers recognize the tremendous value of foreign-born employees. Mary Jo Ferrare from the Workforce Development Institute (WDI) asserts that they “bring a perspective to the workplace that is unlike any other, and their ability to navigate the challenges of limited English proficiency speaks to their resourcefulness and adaptability.” By deploying highly-personalized language learning tools, WDI is helping Mohawk Valley employers expedite English language literacy for immigrant and refugee workers and better realize their potential.
A six month pilot program at Chobani’s New Berlin plant was launched in May in which 15 refugee employees will use Voxy to “improve English language literacy on the production floor,” Ferrare said in a blog post.
In an era where technical or soft skills dominate job readiness headlines, language learning tools offer vast potential to close critical skills gaps. The use of emerging technologies can be utilized to translate language upskilling from aspiration to reality. Savvy employers should emphasize language learning as they would any other upskilling initiative. It is a skill that can — and should — be taught on the job. Doing so will allow employers to tap into a wider pool of diverse, talented workers while simultaneously helping them gain the language skills they need to succeed in their careers.