May 29, 2018 | By Alexander Hitch, Rob Paral

Workforce Development and Immigrants: The View from Detroit

The immigration debate at the federal level ignores how vital immigrants are to the future economic growth of the Midwest. The Chicago Council’s recent report, “Ready to Work: Understanding Immigrant Skills to Build a Competitive Labor Force,” demonstrates that immigrants represent one in six workers nationwide, and that any workforce development strategy must take into account the unique characteristics and contributions of the foreign-born. And while immigrants have both high rates of workforce participation and are more likely to be in their prime working years, their skills often do not match those required for their positions, squandering talent and limiting opportunity.

The Chicago Council recently convened representatives of private industry, immigrant advocacy, workforce development, and local government in Detroit to examine the landscape and challenges of integrating immigrants into Southeast Michigan’s workforce. Several key themes emerged from the discussions:

  1. There is a need for high-skilled workers in areas such as engineering, computer science, and healthcare to ensure Southeast Michigan’s future prosperity. For a city that declared bankruptcy in 2013, Detroit must attract talent—native-born and foreign-born alike—and harness the skills of its current immigrant population to become a global leader in target industries.
  2. Detroit’s business community feels hamstrung by the limitations and uncertainty of federal immigration policy, making it difficult to attract foreign-born workers and plan for the long-term. Detroit must assess its labor needs and talent supply at a more granular level to accurately inform federal immigration policy.
  3. Southeast Michigan is home to a vibrant immigrant population and has launched numerous initiatives to advance immigrants in the workforce. Yet immigrants and employers both need more support in understanding the resources and programs available to accelerate desired outcomes.

Southeast Michigan Needs High-Skilled Immigrants

Immigrants in Michigan are disproportionately more high-skilled than the native-born workforce, a unique advantage in comparison to other states: Approximately 26 percent of the native-born population in Michigan holds a bachelor’s degree, compared to 40 percent of immigrants.[1] Global Detroit estimates that 63 percent of recent adult immigrants to Michigan possess four-year college degrees or their equivalents.[2]

Yet Southeast Michigan will require even more high-skilled talent to fill the jobs of the future. In Amazon’s evaluation of potential cities for its second headquarters, one of the reasons Detroit did not make the Top 20 list was due to an insufficient number of high-skilled workers. This scarcity of high-skilled labor also has the potential to short-circuit Southeastern Michigan’s goal of becoming a leader in next-generation mobility, thwarting further spin-offs for the Michigan economy in designing automated vehicles, improving cyber security, managing digitization, and advancing the Internet of Things.

If Southeast Michigan wants to position itself as a region of innovators and the industries of the future, it needs all the talent—engineers, scientists, computer programmers—it can attract and retain to achieve its goal.

Detroit Needs to Assess its Labor Market Needs to Inform Federal Policy

Unpredictable federal immigration policy makes private industry in Detroit cautious when hiring foreign-born workers and investing in immigrants for high-skilled work. Notably, investment in upskilling a worker costs both time and money, and because of the whims of federal policy, training an immigrant for a position can be risky if federal policymakers revoke the immigrant’s ability to continue working. In addition, processing and determining the correct visa for immigrant workers creates additional costs for human resource departments, which is another reason that federal policy on immigration needs to be predictable and reasonable.

Nevertheless, because of the need for talent that is unfilled by the native-born workforce, businesses are forced to operate within the antiquated parameters of applying for limited H1-B high-skilled visas or hiring recent graduates on temporary visas related to their college major (OPTs). The business community must continue to communicate its needs in the political arena to incite change on the federal level.

Since current limitations on visas and quotas are not serving employers or immigrants, Southeast Michigan must develop a more granular mapping of what specific skills are needed and what supply is available. Future visas could be issued to fill specific skill gaps, such as chemical engineers, rather than broadly defined “high-skilled” employees. An effort to asset-map existing talent supply and data on talent needs at the local level could help shape future immigration policies at the national level. It would also bridge the gap of what industries need and what political powers are pursuing.

Michigan’s Workforce Development Resources Need More Awareness

Michigan already possesses effective resources for immigrants and employers, yet more needs to be done to increase awareness of these tools.

Michigan is the state with the largest number of cities and counties signed on to Welcoming America, an organization that helps member communities achieve prosperity by becoming more inclusive. The Michigan Office of New Americans, run through the Governor’s office, promotes best practices for immigrant integration statewide, instituting a quarterly meeting of Michigan’s approximately 50 ethnic chambers of commerce to share best practices for linking immigrants to careers. The state produced an Immigrant Licensing Guide to transfer credentials for skills and experiences earned abroad for over 44 different occupations. Michigan also streamlined licensure through a single phone number so that immigrant entrepreneurs and high-skilled workers can receive direct guidance on how best to obtain licenses, rather than getting lost in departments of licensing and regulatory affairs, or health and human services. Moreover, the Michigan Talent Retention Initiative, which works with universities to help employ foreign-born, locally educated students, is a model for the country. Coupling this with other initiatives such as the Cultural Ambassadors, a program that connects immigrants to those already working in their field, shows that the foundation for further development is strong.

Despite these efforts and programs, employers and immigrants both need more education on the tools and resources available to facilitate foreign-born participation in the labor force. The region needs to chronicle its many pathways and programs and develop a plan to educate employers on processes and regulations.

Greater Detroit possesses remarkable opportunities for revitalization, but it will need high-skilled immigrants to support that growth. Stakeholders in the workforce development and immigrant advocacy space are aware of their region’s future workforce needs, but they must build a strategy to fully develop its potential for local employers. This includes gathering data on talent supply, illuminating existing pathways to connect employers to talent, building metrics to measure success by benchmarking the Detroit area against other metros, and, finally, advocating for reform and streamlining of immigration policy related to high-skilled workers.

Special thanks to Steve Tobocman of Global Detroit and Glenn Stevens of MICHauto for collaborating on the roundtable. Thanks also to John Austin, Karen Phillippi, and Greg Handel for leading discussions, and to all the attendees for contributing their insights and expertise.

This piece is part of a three-part series on the Chicago Council’s roundtable discussions throughout the Midwest. These discussions, held in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, were generously supported by the Lumina Foundation, and aimed to understand how workforce development strategies in Midwestern metro regions incorporate the unique characteristics and contributions of immigrant workers.

[1] US Census Bureau

[2] Global Detroit Three Year Evaluation, p. 6.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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