Educational levels of Virginia's immigrants. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Public Affairs, VCU.
Educational levels of Virginia's immigrants. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

Third of a three-part series.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin seems to have a laser-like focus on getting more people into the state’s workforce and getting them trained for the jobs that are now begging for workers.

Many of his education policies are designed with this in mind. Lab schools? The goal is to get students trained more quickly. His proposal for every high school student to graduate with a credential or an associate degree? Same thing: cut the time it takes to get students into the workforce.

He’s questioned whether we’re applying the right metric to the state’s 1,105 workforce training programs: “An A-plus is not the number of people trained,” he recently said in Bristol while appearing as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series. “An A-plus is the number of people who get a job.” And he’s cited the number of jobs going unfilled as a reason he wants his administration more involved in the search for the next community college chancellor.

That’s why the governor may want to pay special attention to a report that otherwise might have escaped his notice. The report, prepared by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University for the state’s Office of New Americans and the Virginia Department of Social Services, looks at the state’s growing immigrant population. I’ve mined it for the past two days for insights into the state’s changing demographics – Monday’s installment looked at where those immigrants are and where they’re coming from, Tuesday’s looked at which languages are spoken where. Today I’ll look at some of the 10 recommendations the report had.

Some seem relatively simple. For instance: Create “’Welcome to Virginia’ orientation videos in multiple languages spoken by Virginia’s immigrants.” Some are vague, or at least full of buzzwords that fly over my head. For instance: “’Meet them where they are:’ a thoughtful and intentional approach to program design.” But then we come to Recommendation 3, which comes with seven bullet items under it, each of which might warm the governor’s heart. The overall heading is: “Incorporate Virginia’s immigrants more fully in the commonwealth’s workforce development programs.” The report makes the case that immigrants don’t know much about those programs and therefore can’t take advantage of them – and that slows their integration into American society. Given how many jobs are going unfilled, Youngkin might find this report – and especially that recommendation – a very useful document.

There’s a larger context that this report doesn’t address but that I will: The so-called “worker shortage” is not a temporary phenomenon. This was a situation that was bound to happen for demographic reasons: The big generation of baby boomers is retiring and, because of lower birth rates, there aren’t enough workers to replace them. This was going to happen eventually but the pandemic accelerated this trend through what some are calling “the great resignation” – a lot of baby boomers simply left the workforce earlier than anyone thought. If you’re interested in this, I explored it in more detail in an earlier column.

That labor shortage is now starting to create some interesting political pressure, with otherwise conservative business interests starting to embrace increased immigration as a solution. When Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, spoke in Danville in September as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series, he urged the business leaders in the room to support some way to provide a path to citizenship for those immigrants already here without documentation. Manufacturers need workers, he said, and here they are – or could be, if only the legalities could be worked out.

This report doesn’t get into any of that – not the worker shortage, not calls for immigration reform – but it’s useful to understand the backdrop against which this report was written. Immigrants are already an economic force (the report says Virginia’s immigrants spend $33.6 billion a year and pay $13.4 billion in taxes) and could be even more of one if only some of them were eligible for better-paying jobs (or any jobs). This is a point that you’d think Youngkin would like. (I’m not suggesting he doesn’t; I’m just suggesting he should.)

The report goes on to devote 11 pages to why the state should do more to better integrate immigrants socially and economically. To say that the state should get more immigrants into job training programs is insufficient – and sometimes incorrect – shorthand, because it overlooks that many immigrants are already trained, they just can’t get jobs here for licensing reasons. “In Virginia, 21% of college-educated immigrants 25 and older are working in low-skill jobs or are unemployed,” the report says. Why is that? Because Virginia often doesn’t recognize credentials from other countries.

The report quotes one unnamed service provider in the Shenandoah Valley: “I think the biggest barrier to integration is that you have professionals working in poultry plants. You know, they spent all this time and education and effort at home getting to a good career, and then they have to come here and they, you know, lose everything.”

One unnamed refugee quoted in the report was an attorney in his or her home country: “I have a university degree, I have 10 years of experience, I was a lawyer. And when I came, they put me to work in a factory. I never worked in a factory, I never even saw a factory before.” That doesn’t seem a unique experience, based on other immigrants quoted: “[When] we came here [as refugees], we just finished our degrees, like my husband his MBA and I was an accounting BA. I had never done work in a factory and when our caseworker is like offering us [that type of work], it was really like a depression or a stress, more stress. Because, you’d never done that work and they’re asking you, and you have to, because you are just with two, three pieces of your clothing – you don’t have anything when you’re moving to a new country.”

Now legal experience in another country may not translate directly to the United States – legal systems have differences. But other fields, from accounting to medicine, would seem more universal. The report quotes an immigrant in Hampton Roads: “[The] next barrier, I feel strongly – I’ll call it the credential barrier. Some of the highly educated immigrants – doctors, engineers – they immigrated to the U.S. [but] they don’t have the U.S. diploma or license in their profession, so they cannot practice their profession. … Off the top of my head, I’m thinking nurses, the doctors, which we need desperately. We lose a lot of taxes from them, we need to put them back to work for us, so we can collect their revenues.”

That point may already be sufficiently clear, but let’s just cite a few more quotes in the report for emphasis:

From an immigrant: “I worked very hard in Afghanistan, I did my education and also I taught for five years at the school for blind and deaf. I even brought all of my documentation: certifications, school records that I’ve been a teacher at a university in Afghanistan for five years and I have a degree and diploma. But every time I apply for a job, it is not accepted, because I don’t have a degree from here. … It will be hard for me to get those certificates again in America, because I have small children, I work, and taking those classes – that takes all my time. My goal is just to use the degree and do what I love. I put many years to go to college and get that degree, I’d like to use that.”

From a service provider in the Charlottesville area: “I’ve taught students who were OB-GYNs and pharmacists and engineers and architects in their country and they come here. They’ve invested all this time and effort into training in the home country and the best job they can get here is like maybe a CNA if they go back to school.”

And perhaps the best bumper-sticker slogan from an immigrant: “We are not asking for free money; we want to work.”

The report says the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services started a Refugee Career Pathways program in 2018 that, among other things, offers “re-credentialing and credential recognition.” But it doesn’t operate in Virginia. Even if it did, the report says its value would be limited because it doesn’t offer services to non-refugee immigrants. The report goes on to make three pages of recommendations about what the state could do.

Among them:

  • Work with universities to set up counselors who could advise immigrants on how to get foreign credentials recognized in Virginia (the report doesn’t really address what the state should do to recognize those credentials).
  • Establish “alternative licensing pathways that integrate immigrant professionals more quickly and effectively while maintaining standards for public safety.” For example: “Programs could be developed for U.S.-born and foreign medical professionals who could not get a residency so that they continue working in the medical field in some other capacity. They could be employed in non-physician jobs in community clinics, testing centers, health departments, and hospitals.”
  • Set up language training programs for foreign-trained professionals “focused on the terminology and business processes related to their occupation in the United States.”

    The report also goes on to employ a phrase that’s all the rage these days in business circles: the talent pipeline. It says the state can and should develop a future talent pipeline by focusing on developing “bilingual, culturally competent service providers, especially in primary care and mental health services” – and that it shouldn’t just look to Virginians, either. Some ways to do that:
  • “Offer scholarships to bilingual medical students in exchange for commitment to work in Virginia for a certain period of time.”
  • “Similar incentives might be appropriate for bilingual nursing students: Offer in-state tuition for out-of-state bilingual nursing students in exchange for a commitment to work in Virginia for 5 years or so. Offer scholarships and other financial assistance to in-state bilingual students with cultural competency in exchange for a commitment to work in Virginia. Given that medical and nursing licenses are not easily transferable to other states, the likelihood of medical professionals incentivized to work in Virginia through such initiatives remaining in the commonwealth long-term is very high.”

    This would seem to address another concern of Youngkin’s: He frets that more people are moving out of Virginia than moving in, and that makes it harder to grow the economy for those who remain. He’s already set up a program aimed at attracting law enforcement workers from other states. A program like this aimed at bilingual nurses would help solve two problems at once: the nursing shortage and that out-migration deficit.

If the governor hasn’t read this report, I hope he does, because I think he’ll find a lot of things to like. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.