A New Economic Engine


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The ability to communicate in English has significant but unrecognized economic value in the U.S. This is especially true for millions of adult immigrants who arrive with little or no English competence, but look for work. Unless they learn much more English, they are limited to low-wage occupations and cannot move up the career ladder.

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A New Economic Engine

  1. 1. A New Economic Engine: Closing the Immigrant “Language Gap” By Alvaro Lima and Peter Plastrik The ability to communicate in English has significant but unrecognized economic value in the U.S. This is especially true for millions of adult immigrants who arrive with little or no English competence, but look for work. Unless they learn much more English, they are limited to low-wage occupations and cannot move up the career ladder. But the “language gap” is not just a problem for immigrants. It’s a problem, too, for businesses trying to fill skilled positions, and for communities, states, and a nation desperately seeking economic growth. U.S. labor markets are turning increasingly to immigrants to fill jobs, but the potential employees are not prepared linguistically. As the Baby Boom generation retires from work, an estimated 10 million skilled workers will be leaving the workforce during just the next few years. In many parts of the U.S. most of the increase in available workers comes from immigrants. But, a large percentage of the jobs that will be available over the next 10 years will require at least modest English language skills. The gap wouldn’t be a problem if the systems most adult immigrants use to learn English worked well. But they don’t. Local school districts provide the majority of the nation’s adult English as Second Language (ESL) courses, their programs funded by the federal government. Most other classes are at post-secondary institutions. An adult who is literate in his own language and has no prior English instruction needs between 500-1,000 hours of instruction to meet basic needs, function on the job, and interact on a limited basis through English. Students taking six hours of ESL classes weekly require two to three years to achieve basic language acquisition; full fluency takes longer. But students can aim their ESL course work for different goals, including life skills or survival ESL; family literacy programs; English literacy and civics; vocational ESL; workplace ESL; and academic ESL[1]. While life-skills ESL focuses developing general English language skills, workplace ESL develops and improves English language skills directly relevant to specific work settings. In the 2006-07 school year more than 1.1 million adults enrolled in federally funded, state- administered ESL classes. But this served only a fraction of the actual and potential demand. Researchers using census data estimated in 2000 that of the people who reported speaking a language other than English at home, more than 8 million did not speak English “well” or “at all” and an additional 7 million did not speak English “very well.” And as the immigrant population grows in the U.S., so does demand for ESL. It’s nothing new that immigrants face waiting lists for ESL classes; since the 1990s this has been documented. But the problem persists. In March 2009 the federally funded Center for Adult English Language Education stated on the FAQ page of its Web site that “Some immigrants who want to learn English may have to wait for months or years to get into ESL classes. In large cities across the country, ESL programs frequently have waiting lists for classroom space. Some rural areas have no available classes.”[2] The Center added that it was impossible to tell how many immigrants were on waiting lists. A year earlier, however, research by the Boston Redevelopment Authority found that some 15,000 immigrants in Massachusetts alone were on waiting lists—six months to three years away from getting their first English lesson. (The state contains 2.1 percent of the U.S. population.)
  2. 2. Immigrants who do get into ESL classes face even more problems, our review of the literature on ESL found, including:  Lack of consistency in the quality of teachers; weak rigor of the curriculum; inadequacies in the placement assessments used. Some programs offer excellent curricula with certified teachers and use the most finely tuned assessments. Others have volunteer teachers, a make-shift curriculum, and use only partial assessments—reading only or speaking only, instead of both—to help defray the costs of the assessments.  Adult ESL learners with very different learning profiles and needs may find themselves in the same program. For examples, a beginning ESL class may include educated learners who have substantial reading (and writing) skills, but limited oral English proficiency, as well as less-educated learners who have more advanced English listening and speaking skills (perhaps learned through employment) but limited proficiency in reading or writing.  Other problems include the difficulty in scheduling classes for immigrant populations and lack of diversity of curricula that reflect the needs of the diverse population seeking adult ESL coursework. It’s little wonder, then, that ESL classes have trouble retaining participants. A third of all ESL students drop out by the end of their second month in class. This is not always because of the programs’ failures. Also figuring into the equation are personal factors such as low self-esteem, the difficulties of working and attending class, and lack of transportation or childcare. But researchers have noted that sometimes learners are not being well-served by staying in a program. Lack of appropriate materials for low-level learners, lack of opportunities to achieve success, lack of flexible scheduling, classes with mixed abilities, and irrelevant course materials can all be reasons students choose to leave a program. The ESL failures make it unlikely that any place—or the nation—will close its immigrant language gap any time soon. And that has economic consequences. In 2008 the City of Boston took a close look at its immigrant language gap. It found that dependence on immigrant workers was increasing. In 2006 about 20 percent of the Boston workforce was foreign born, up from 16 percent just six years earlier. Also in 2006 metro Boston contained some 88,000 immigrant workers with limited English language skills. An estimated 93 percent of all of the new jobs that will be created in the New England region will require at least modest English skills. Many of the immigrant workers are employed in the lowest of the four levels of language skills. Occupations in this niche amount to about 19 percent of all jobs. Jobs requiring low- medium language skills account for 30 percent of jobs, while those with medium-high language skills represent 34 percent, and high-language skills are needed for 17 percent. At each higher level, the average annual wage of a job is also higher—from about $25,000 for low English skills to $71,000 for high level skills. If the 88,000 immigrants in low-language skill jobs could improve their English enough to move up one level to a better paying job, calculated the Boston Redevelopment Authority, their total direct and indirect income would increase by $731 million annually. That would be good for the immigrants, their families, and the communities in which they live, and for the businesses that needed workers.
  3. 3. But some 15,000 immigrants in Massachusetts are stuck on ESL waiting lists, instead of improving their English skills in preparation to fill jobs. And the thousands of other immigrants who are in ESL programs face the system’s problems that may prevent them from learning what they need.