Workforce Training and Refugees: How to Make it Work

October 23, 2021

A discussion on career advancement cannot be comprehensive without addressing the opportunities for access to work for refugees. For refugees, the right to work and access to work are both vital for securing livelihood, basic needs, reducing vulnerability, enhancing resilience, and securing dignity. However, there are many obstacles to including refugees in the labor force of their host countries—political economy concerns, labor market structure and capacity, and the capacities of the refugees. 

Refugees face a major challenge in accessing labor markets in host countries. Many host countries, especially emerging economies and those with weak labor markets, are reluctant to allow refugees the right to work. Restrictions are based on concerns of limited capacity, decreasing jobs available to citizens, reductions in wages, and working conditions. Yet, in many countries the refugee population accounts for a very small fraction of the host population and workforce, posing negligible impacts from a macroeconomic perspective.  

With the right to work, refugees could make potentially significant contributions to their host countries, and may develop skills and capital that will ease their return to their countries of origin when possible. This right also sits within the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and fight inequality.  

There is no single solution to the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee workers. The lessons below can be applied toward building effective programs that generate opportunities for immigrants and refugees and contribute to their wellbeing. 

  •  Incentivize programs that enable immigrants and refugees to access “good” jobs, as opposed to any job. The system also needs incentives that enable workforce organizations to support the immigrants in their path toward better jobs (e.g., funds for ongoing assistance, access to networks, etc.). 
  • Address digital literacy and digital access. Even before the pandemic heightened the need for access to technology, digital skills were becoming important to almost all jobs. Immigrants are less likely to have access to the necessary technology or be able to afford broadband, limiting their ability to access training. 
  • Emphasize other transferable skills such as capacity with English, and customer relations, both central to many jobs, in addition to sector-specific training. Formalize certifications, badges or other means of validating skills learned to communicate progress to employers and the broader community.  
  • Bring the training to the workplace, including providing employees with the tools they need to participate. This ensures that the training includes the most relevant skills, and acknowledges the challenges immigrants face in trying to build training into a day that may already include more than one job, as well as family care responsibilities.  
  • Create apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship programs. Partner with employers or other relevant entities to develop a clear pathway to a more stable employment. 
  • Build wraparound supports acknowledging the multiple demands on an immigrant’s life. These may include stipends to cover childcare, loaned tablets to trainees that don’t have access to computers, transportation vouchers for in-person training, and more. 

Further reading and resources: