July 23, 2018 | By Alexander Hitch, Rob Paral

Workforce Development and Immigrants: The View from Milwaukee

By most measures, the state of Wisconsin and the greater Milwaukee area have positive economic momentum. Recent data show that the state unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country: Labor force participation has reached 69%, with under 100,000 persons unemployed as of May 2018. This healthy outlook is bolstered by last year’s announcement that Foxconn, a Taiwanese LED-screen manufacturer, will build an assembly plant just south of Milwaukee in Racine County, bringing up to 13,000 well-paying jobs.

Yet these successes are not guaranteed indefinitely. Wisconsin’s labor force is projected to shrink dramatically in the coming decades. By 2040, the total population aged 65 and over is expected to increase by 72%, with 18 counties having at least 33% of their total population in this age bracket. The impending shortfall in population has the potential to upset Wisconsin’s recent economic successes.

As a result, immigrants are a vital part of Wisconsin’s future economic stability and labor force. To prepare today for the economy of tomorrow, Wisconsin’s workforce development strategies must consider the importance and unique characteristics of immigrant workers to ensure that the state does not squander its advantage.

Building on findings from the Council’s Ready to Work report, the Chicago Council convened local stakeholders, business leaders, workforce development boards, and community college representatives in Milwaukee to discuss how to best connect immigrant skills to workforce needs. The discussion illuminated several key themes:

  1. Wisconsin must better understand the characteristics of its immigrant workforce across sectors to appropriately scale solutions. Developing a systematic analysis of the needs for both businesses and for immigrant communities will allow the state to diagnose appropriate interventions and reforms.
  2. A new mechanism is needed to recognize immigrants’ skillsets in the absence of formal certifications. By building a process-map that clarifies and connects available skills to labor market demands, Wisconsin and Milwaukee can solve the approaching labor crunch while further integrating immigrants into the labor force.
  3. Employers can support the professional development of immigrants by creating pathways for employees to gain experience and earn credentials while working. Community organizations, schools, and non-profits – groups that interact and build trust with immigrant communities – should support private industry’s efforts to do so.
  4. Workforce boards, corporations, community colleges, and other employers need to advocate for all immigrants to have access to programming and opportunities, regardless of their legal status. By working together to ensure that no community is overlooked, Wisconsin stakeholders can guarantee that immigrant talent is not wasted while waiting for changes to federal policy.

Develop an Understanding of the Challenge to Scale Solutions

As a first step, Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area must develop a more thorough understanding of the local immigrant workforce. Workforce boards, for example, can be challenged when it comes to fully grasping and managing the diversity of the immigrant labor force; When a plant closed in the Milwaukee area, the local workforce board was not prepared to handle the eleven different languages spoken among the 600 employees.

With limited resources, parsing through data can help prioritize where best to make investments to yield the greatest impact. Mapping the immigrant workforce across geographies and scaling the needs of both business and foreign-born communities will allow workforce development agencies to more accurately connect businesses to their labor needs. Likewise, the state will be better equipped to appropriately distribute funds to workforce development organizations by clarifying their programmatic needs.

Translate Immigrant Skills into Recognized Credentials

By calculating the ages of the immigrant workforce, it is likely that nearly 65 percent of foreign-born workers were educated and learned their trades abroad.[1] Yet apart from enrolling in sometimes costly, lengthy, and bureaucratic training programs, there is a lack of efficient ways to determine and translate the equivalency of those skills into credentials recognized in the US. Correspondingly, immigrants in Wisconsin are underperforming in the job market.

Workforce development agencies and community colleges should work with the state government to develop ways to test immigrants’ already-developed skills and hone them through less expensive investments, such as two-year degrees. Connecting immigrants’ skills to those that are in demand is key to meeting Wisconsin’s workforce needs of tomorrow.

Incentivize Businesses to Offer “Earn and Learn”, Using Non-Profits to Connect

Employers should be incentivized to take chances on those who, although lacking formal credentials, possess the skills and drive to grow within a profession. Some businesses have already developed nascent systems that initially hire immigrant employees for low-skill positions but prepare, train, and certify them for more high-skilled roles by matching their previous skills to other in-house business processes.

As businesses look for creative avenues to integrate immigrants, workforce development organizations and immigrant service groups could provide translators, counselors, and English language learning programs to support the transition. Leveraging the relationships that community organizations have with the foreign-born will also help connect greater numbers of immigrants to current initiatives, such as the Earn and Learn program.

Advocate for All Immigrants to Access Programs and Opportunities

Although there are programs that attempt to tackle the workforce crunch by bringing immigrants into jobs that fit their skills, the legal status of immigrants inhibits their participation in many programs. Community colleges and other organizations, for example, might not be compensated by the federal government for services to the immigrant population, thereby spending more resources than they can afford.

While the undocumented status does not prevent immigrants from finding some jobs, it does often prevent them from obtaining jobs they are qualified to do. Unfortunately, the immigration debate at the national level is not showing signs of soon being resolved, but companies, employers, workforce boards, and community colleges must continue to advocate for reforms and demonstrate how their needs are not being met with the status quo. They must stand together in their collective goal of connecting foreign-born workers to jobs that match their skills, regardless of immigrant status. This will ensure that Wisconsin retains and connects all of its population to an economy that is poised to grow into the future.


Even though Wisconsin and Milwaukee are well positioned at present, preserving this vitality in the future will require a concerted effort from many sectors. While states and cities are unable to change federal immigration policy, they can change policies over which they have control. Credentials, on-the-job training, supply and demand mapping of skills, and advocating for reforms and increased resources are all within their capacity. Because of Wisconsin’s strong immigrant heritage and entrepreneurialism, there is ample precedent for these forces to bring about needed changes.

Special thanks to Darryl Morin of Advanced Wireless, Inc., Earl Buford of Employ Milwaukee, and Arturo Martinez of MATC for collaborating on the roundtable. Thanks also to each of the attendees for contributing their insights and expertise.

This piece is the final 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] Ready to Work Report, p. 30.


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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