Learning the Language

EnglishEmployers with hopes of maintaining a skilled U.S. workforce in the future would be wise to initiate English-education programs in the present, according to a just-released report from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

The study, which the Washington, D.C.-based think tank describes as “the first-ever metro-level analysis of limited English-proficient workers in U.S. metropolitan areas,” finds almost one in 10 adults of working age in the United States—19.2 million people between the ages of 16 and 64—lacks full proficiency in English.

Based on U.S. Census Bureau data culled from a 2012 survey, Brookings’ Investing in English Skills: The Limited English Proficient Workforce in U.S. Metropolitan Areas identified 89 of the most populous U.S. metro areas and ranked them for size and share of their population that is limited English-proficient (LEP) as well as for growth or decline in limited English-proficient population since 2000. The report also provides detailed characteristics of metro areas’ LEP workforce, including the languages they speak, the occupations and industries in which they work, employment rates, median income and educational attainment.

According to the study, metro areas with a high concentration of immigrants, especially metro areas in California and Texas, “dominate the list of metros with the highest share of their working-age populations that is LEP,” according to a Brookings statement. Among the top 10 metro areas studied, Miami is the only one not located in either California or Texas.

In addition to recommending increased funding from the Workforce Investing Act; targeted outreach and instructional innovation enabling LEP adults to access instruction at the worksite, online and by mobile device; the report urges employers to invest in English-education programs, particularly companies operating in industries with the highest numbers of LEP workers, such as manufacturing, food services, construction and the retail trade.

“English proficiency is the most essential means of opening doors to economic opportunity for immigrant workers in the United States,” says Jill H. Wilson, senior research analyst and associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, and author of the report, in a statement. “Yet access to acquiring these skills is persistently limited by a lack of resources and attention.”

In the same statement, Wilson theorizes that the price for failing to provide these workers with more opportunities to improve their English-speaking skills will only get steeper with time.

“Given the large number of LEP workers in the United States, and the fact that virtually all of the growth in the U.S. labor force over the next four decades is projected to come from immigrants and their children, it is in our collective interest to tackle this challenge head on.”