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For English learners, literacy and skills training need not be separate

  • Joanna
  • July 19, 2016

Ammar drove a taxi for nearly two years before signing on with Uber and Lyft in early 2016. Today, the 32-year-old driver says, he makes a “good enough” living — and given what’s happened in his native Syria over the past few years, he feels exceptionally fortunate.

“I don’t know if this is American dream,” he says in perfectly passable English, “but close, you know?”

There is, however, one thing that Ammar will admit he’d really love to change about his current lot in life. “Not about money — being happy,” he says. “I could be a lawyer.”

That’s what he was training to do in the now-devastated city of Aleppo, Ammar says.

He understands that the laws and legal system are different in his new home, but he also feels he has a lot more to give. “I know a lot about contracts,” he says.  

At very least, he says, he’d like to be a paralegal, an option he’s discussed with several lawyers who are regular passengers. They’ve all told him their firms prefer certified paralegals.

And that’s the problem, he says, because he’s still working on his English comprehension — and more than half of the communication grade on the certified paralegal exam is for things like grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary and composition.

“Speaking I’m good, no problem,” he says. “Reading and writing? Not so good.”
There are more than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants in the United States who are either unemployed or working in unskilled jobs. There are many reasons, but one of the keys ones is that they lack the English skills that would help them obtain professional certifications that mirror those they had in their former places of residence.

While English language programs abound, very few are set up to help learners take advantage of specific workforce opportunities that require certification. Ammar, for instance, has been participating in an English learning group since he was settled, but “it is more talking” than writing, he says, and he has yet to find someone who can help him better develop his English legal vocabulary.

English language learners like Ammar often have dual needs — for English instruction and occupational skills training. “Yet, traditionally, the training and education systems have worked in silos, making it difficult for providers to offer services that address the multiple skill demands of modern society,” according to an issue brief by the Literacy Information and Communication System, also known as LINCS. But with more than 45 million people in the country who started their lives in other nations — many of them English language learners with valuable skills developed before they came to the United States — it’s clear that people like Ammar are a highly untapped workforce resource.

Here are four ways to change that:
1) Communities can connect English language programs to employment initiatives in high-growth industries from the start. Such approaches, according to LINCS, “are often jointly developed through community partnerships with workforce boards, employers and colleges” and focus on transition to job opportunities available locally with instruction that is designed “to develop the language and literacy skills necessary for the next step in their careers.”

2) Local English tutoring programs can conduct a “skills census” that can be provided to workforce development boards to help conceptualize programs aimed at providing training in specific job or career “clusters” in which groups of language learners already have skills.

3) Because technology skills, and particularly basic computer familiarization, is widely transferable across languages and cultures, programs designed to take advantage of blended learning — which aren’t right for everyone — may have more success to accelerate both English language and career-specific learning.

4)  Employers can be engaged to help determine what jobs can be done by skilled individuals even if they have limited English proficiency, and to further identify the specific areas of literacy that employees need in various job sectors for targeted training.