Immigrants Are Looking for an Opportunity
Immigrants are an important part of the population. In the city of Philadelphia, 13% of residents are immigrants. In the greater Philadelphia region, that figure is 10%. Since 2000, immigrants are responsible for 96% of all “main street” business ownership growth and 75% of the workforce growth. Immigrants are also 30% more likely than native-born US citizens to become entrepreneurs.
Yet immigrants face all sorts of obstacles. They may not speak English well, may not understand local business regulations and customs, may lack the credentials they need to work in their professions, or have legal and financial challenges that make it difficult for them to succeed.
In our work assisting more than 16,000 immigrants from over a 150 countries, we’ve found one thing to be consistently true: Immigrants aren’t looking for handouts or sympathy. They’re looking for opportunity. Our job is to help them connect with employers, resources, and business communities, find ways to remove the obstacles, and then get out of the way and watch them soar.
Immigrants Want to Contribute to Their New Community
Immigrants want to contribute to their new communities—and by helping them do just that, the Welcoming Center facilitates economic growth and development.
The visionary urban planner Jane Jacobs wrote that one of the best ways to turn a neighborhood from blighted to thriving is to put “eyes on the street.” Abandoned buildings and vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods are the perfect places for the drug trade and other illicit activity. But when immigrants arrive and set up shop, the streets are filled once again with life. Dead storefronts become bright, bustling businesses. And the whole neighborhood thrives.
A similar effect occurs in larger-scale economies. While some worry about immigrants “taking” local workers’ jobs, the truth is that many employers struggle to find the skilled, dedicated talent they need.
Immigrants Benefit, Employers Benefit, Communities Benefit
Immigrant populations are a rich resource often left untapped—but they contain thousands and thousands of intelligent, hardworking people with a strong drive to succeed and diverse perspectives that can contribute to innovation. And in tough economic times, that’s especially important.
Becoming a more welcoming place for immigrants will give them a leg up in that competition and help retain talented people of all backgrounds. And for many cities in the Midwest and Northeast with declining populations, a strategy to attract and retain new taxpayers and families is a matter of survival.
The factors keeping them from that success can often be overcome fairly easily with access to language classes, connections to local employers, and help with job training and cultural integration. That’s what we offer at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.
The result? Immigrants benefit, employers benefit, and communities benefit. That success attracts more businesses, more immigrants, and more professionals and creatives to the region, further increasing the tax base and opening up even more opportunities. For example, a 2008 study by the economic research firm Econsult Corp. found that the 100 workers the Welcoming Center placed in 2007 generated a total annual positive impact of 207 jobs and $4 in earnings. The state funding that helped us place them yielded a return on investment (ROI) of $1.66 for every dollar spent over the course of the decade. And in 2009-10, we placed 310 job seekers with 75 different companies.
In total, we’ve placed more than 1,200 job seekers with 150 different companies in a host of industries, from healthcare to hospitality to manufacturing. And we’ve stuck with them, providing job-retention support to ensure their success. The results? It works: Two-thirds of the employers we’ve worked with have come back within a year to hire more job seekers.
Our programs and practices have produced remarkable results, including higher retention and placement rates for our foreign-born participants (a group that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania struggled to serve through its state workforce development programs), surpassing those of other regional workforce development programs working with the mainstream population.
In addition to our main initiatives, we also dedicate special programs when the need arises. For instance, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we received a grant from the William Penn Foundation to coordinate assistance to the Haitian community in greater Philadelphia. We developed a program to help Haitian immigrants with legal and employment issues and fulfill the needs of individuals and community groups. We’ve also developed community engagement programs to help ease friction between immigrant and native-born residents, to ensure merchants’ safety, and to reach out to local business owners to create commercial development corridors.