Op-ed: The city depends on immigrants to succeed, so let’s invest in immigrants’ success

New York is a city of immigrants, but we have a long way to go before we’re a city of immigrant inclusion. Our 3.1 million immigrants are chronically unemployed and underemployed , more likely to live in poverty despite working more hours and participating in the workforce at higher rates than their U.S.-born peers.

Such stark inequity isn’t unique to New York. Yet with 40% of New Yorkers born outside the U.S., there are few places as dependent on the economic mobility of immigrants, refugees and asylees.

It’s past time to build systems that set immigrants up for success instead of struggle. A fundamental step is to connect New York’s newcomers with a central skill that can energize their careers: English proficiency.

There are more than 1 million adult English-learners in the local workforce; yet in New York and across the country, we’re serving just 4% of them. Across the five boroughs, accessing English can mean jockeying for a slot in an overbooked in-person class, cobbling together child care and making multiple bus transfers—all to attend a course that likely relies on outdated instructional practices such as grammar drills, scripted dialogue and preparation for academic pathways and standardized tests.

The status quo drives poor learning outcomes along with inequality and labor shortages. Adults who are still learning English earn 40% less than their peers who speak the language proficiently. And language barriers keep workers with in-demand education, training and experience out of the workforce. It’s an unacceptable reality in a city grappling with a 300,000-person drop in its labor force.

A city with a 400-year history of immigration can—and must—do better.

Research consistently tells us that adult English learners benefit from personalized, career-aligned, on-demand instruction. New York City must find the capacity to teach English like the vocational skill that it is and to deliver effective instruction at the scale required by our massive workforce. Local employers are well-positioned to deliver on both fronts.

We know the programs work. At organizations offering career-aligned English upskilling, 92% of learners improved their English proficiency and 80% reported achieving career goals including pay raises and promotions. Outside of the workplace, gains in English proficiency bolster tax revenues, job creation and civic engagement. It’s a win-win for New York.

By connecting more immigrants with on-ramps to job training and pathways to economic mobility, New York’s employers can challenge the notion that starting over in a new country automatically means beginning at the bottom. Scaling science-based solutions that promote English proficiency is the place to start.

Katie Brown founded EnGen, a certified B Corporation that delivers personalized, contextualized, mobile-first English-language upskilling to immigrants, refugees and other speakers of other languages.