For most of us, immigration challenges mean caravans approaching U.S. borders, refugees begging for asylum, dreamers trying to stay in the only country they know. But for U.S. employers facing scary workforce shortages, legal immigration is an essential way to keep their organizations afloat. When these employers think about immigration, they think about meeting the challenges that come with employing foreign-born workers.
At this moment, there’s a tight labor market and employers are “looking more broadly for workers than they have in the past,” says David Dyssegaard Kallick, deputy director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a New York City think tank that looks at immigrant issues around the country.
“People may have an assumption that there are big issues, and at the first bump in the road might say, ‘This isn’t working.’,” Kallick says. “They need patience and confidence that things will work out. Successful employers say, ‘Here’s this issue, and let’s work through it.’ “
Reasons to hire immigrant workers
In a nutshell: You now — or soon will — need them.
The U.S. workforce is shrinking: 10,000 baby boomers reach 65 and retirement age every day, and 46% of U.S. employers say they can’t fill open jobs, according to ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage research.
Experts predict the number of unfilled jobs will only increase as baby boomers decrease, and hiring immigrants is one way to shore up a flagging workforce. U.S. Department of Labor statistics for 2017 show:
- 4 million foreign-born people work here.
- Hispanics account for 47.9% of foreign-born workers, followed by Asians who account for 25.2%.
- The share of the U.S. civilian labor force that was foreign-born was 13.3% in 2000 and jumped to 17.1% in 2017.
- Foreign-born workers are more likely than native-born workers to be employed in service occupations (23.9% versus 16.1%); production, transportation, and material moving jobs (14.9% versus 11%); and natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (13.9% versus 8.3%).
The good news is that U.S. employers have largely met the challenges of enfolding foreign-born workers into their businesses, says Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C.
“If you step back and take the 10,000-foot view, immigrants have relatively high employment rates and earn wages roughly equal to natives with the same skills,” Camarota says. “It would seem that employers have done a pretty good job of hiring, retaining, and paying immigrants; and the immigrants have done a good job finding and retaining and earning. That would be an indication that things have gone pretty well.”
Here’s a 10,000-foot view of the challenges employers of immigrant workers face.
1: Piles of paperwork
Challenge: The first time you hire an immigrant worker, the paperwork can seem daunting. You must make sure the employee is authorized to work in the U.S. and keep records that show he continues to comply with rules. Hiring foreign-born workers includes completing paperwork from the U.S. departments of state and labor and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. You also must make sure the employee only performs work he is authorized to do. That means, if you hire a, say, landscaper, he doesn’t do construction work, too.
Solution: Practice, practice, practice. “Once you know the drill, the task is manageable, says Preston Huennekens, a research associate for the Center for Immigration Studies. Until then, companies should hire an immigration lawyer to walk them through the process and help them set up systems for future foreign hires. “It’s relatively simple for those who have done it the longest,” Huennekens says. “You then are aware of the process, and it becomes part of your business day-to-day.”
2: Language barriers
Challenge: Some workers don’t need to speak the king’s English to perform their jobs. But for others, like service workers, English mastery is essential and can be difficult. Although employees can quickly learn basic phrases, struggles with business-specific terminology, idioms, and slang can make communication with supervisors and customers difficult.
Solution: Employers must act as a resource for finding ESL classes and, if possible, holding classes on site and customizing them to a company’s needs. “Transportation is a challenge for new arrivals in the U.S.,” Kallick says. “There’s an added advantage to holding on-site English classes, so that foreign-born workers can be more connected to your day-to-day workplace.”
3: Cultural differences
Challenge: Cultural differences extend beyond which winter holiday an employee celebrates or what headwear is standard dress. Every culture has specific attitudes, values, and beliefs that can impact their working life. Grieving the death of a family member, for instance, is culture-specific and can strain company bereavement policies that, say, allow time off to grieve a parent but not a grandparent.
Solution: Flexibility. Companies with elastic family leave policies can more easily accommodate immigrant – and non-immigrant – worker needs. Further, Kallick says, managers tasked with supervising employees in a culturally sensitive way become better managers.
“Sure, there are daily challenges that come up,” Kallick says, “but having managers flex their muscles, solve problems, become more culturally sensitive all the time make them better managers all around.”
4: Communication styles
Challenge: Every person has a verbal and non-verbal communication style, the result of personal and cultural experiences and norms. People in the U.S., for instance, view eye contact as a sign of respect and engagement; people from, say, India prefer to keep eye contact to a minimum, especially with members of the opposite sex. Problems arise when people with different communication styles misconstrue each other’s intentions.
Solutions: Employers must train managers to see situations from another person’s perspective and clearly explain the work habits he expects, like being on time. In some cases, assigning a mentor – a successful employee from his culture – can help the new employee more easily integrate into the workplace.