job search maze

Young immigrants face obstacles when navigating the U.S. labor market

The case for immigrant workforce equity to help address workforce shortages

Young adults under the age of 30 with immigrant backgrounds encounter major roadblocks in their quests to land workforce opportunities that match their skills, says a recent report from Upwardly Global, a national nonprofit that supports immigrants and refugees with international credentials in their efforts to restart their careers once in the United States.

“Approximately 47% of recently-arrived immigrants come to the U.S. equipped with a college education,” states Roadblocks to Workforce Inclusion for Young Adult Immigrants: Charting the Path Forward. “More than two million immigrants and refugees are unemployed or under-employed in jobs that don’t match their skill levels.”

A survey of more than 200 young adults – including health care workers, legal professionals, human resources professionals, software engineers, and more – found:

  • 71% had difficulty evaluating which career paths, professional courses, or credential evaluations were worth pursuing
  • 50% used networking as a job search method – indicating the difficulty of accessing professional networks
  • 43% asked for targeted support on cultural differences, industry lingo, and professional communication – indicating the difficulty of communicating their skills and work history in professional-level English
  • Only 17% of participants had U.S. work experience in their field of specialization
  • 65% reported having less than five hours per week to look for a job
  • 60% felt their skills are undervalued in the U.S. workforce with that increasing to over 70% for young immigrants of color

The report offers specific actions to support young immigrants on their career pathways. Among them:

  • Bolster a support system through industry-specific job coaching and mentoring
  • Provide a clear starting point and pathway for each major industry
  • Offer templates for resumes and cover letters for effective professional communication
  • Offer soft skills practice that is U.S. market-specific
  • Arrange opportunities for mentorship from professionals in their industries of interest
One Woman’s Experience

Luana Lima moved to the U.S. in 2017 from Brazil. She came with a bachelor’s degree in law but found it difficult to get a foothold in the U.S. market.

As a study participant, Lima says, “People were telling me, ‘You should take a paralegal course,’ but the paralegal certificate takes two years! Others would tell me, ‘You don’t have to because you have your degree.’ The thing that I really needed was some counseling — someone who’d talk to me and say, ‘These are the options.’”

Luana Lima as a legal intern in Brazil

While attending university in Brazil, Lima interned for two years at the public defender’s office. Regarding her job search in the U.S., Lima says, “In my own interviews, I was trying to tell people I don’t have a lot of experience in United States, but I know how to search for information. I know how to learn. I have the skills. I have the background.”

“It was hard because people want you to have experience, but they don’t want to give you the opportunity even though I have my experience in Brazil.”

Lima working as a preschool teacher

Instead, Lima worked for three years as a preschool teacher and as a babysitter for six months. She respects people who work in these areas, but it was taking a personal toll. “I was kind of dying and hiding myself. I was another person. It wasn’t me. It was so frustrating.”

A Valuable Resource

While studying English at night school, Lima learned about Upwardly Global from one of her teachers. She thought, “I can’t believe this organization. This is a place that I can go for free. This is amazing.”

Lima says it was helpful to get information about applying for jobs, how to interview, and conduct searches. “It was a very good start. And also, it was hope. The organization is telling you it’s possible. You feel like, ‘I can do it.’”

These says, Lima works as a legal process clerk for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in its immigration department. “We are trying to give support to the clients who get arrested in San Francisco. They are in the removal proceedings situation,” she explains.

“They are in ICE detention. Our job is to give these people the opportunity to defend themselves.”

A Call for Equity

“Immigrant young adults comprise nearly 10% (or 5 million) of the overall foreign-born population,” according to the report.

“Amid U.S. workforce shortages in high-demand industries, there is a strong case for public and private philanthropic investment to build immigrant workforce equity, including clear investments that increase economic mobility for young immigrants and refugees,” it concludes.

Luana Lima, legal process clerk, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

Regarding her future plans, Lima plans to take the TOEFL exam to test her English proficiency and then continue her education. “I really want to become a public defender. So, I really want to go to the law school.”

She continues, “After I have this document saying that I passed [the TOEFL], then I can take the LSAT (law school admission test) and then I will try to get accepted in the university. Wish me luck.”