How to Get Refugees to Living-Wage Work

Guest post from Alicia Wrenn, Assistant Director for Integration at LIRS 

I had the opportunity to attend a Forced Migration Upward Mobility Project (FMUMP) workshop on October 16th in New York City where Dr. Faith Nibbs presented her report Moving into the Fastlane: Understanding Refugee Mobility in the Context of Resettlement. It is great reading and gives us much to think about to improve employment outcomes for clients. One of the main goals of FMUMP is to assist refugees (and employment practitioners), to find jobs that pay a living-wage as defined generally as $5 over the minimum, but it will vary based on the market.

Her team did research in the Dallas and Ft. Worth communities over a period of 2.5 years. They interviewed refugees, employment staff, and scholars – 350 in total.  And they observed 300 hours of service provision and reviewed all available data and literature on the topic.

moving-into-the-fastlane With targeted skills training it took just over one year to break the living wage threshold. The study found this to be the single greatest impact on wages. This was true for all the sub-populations – including highly skilled, low skilled, for men, and for women. Dr Nibbs went through a Return on Investment calculation that showed the net effect when making these wage gains – the savings on government assistance (Food Stamps etc.), plus the increased taxes paid by the refugee at the new wage, and that weighed against the cost of job skills training of approximately $3,000 per person. The ROI to the government is about 600%. So the investment by the government in skills training makes good sense.  

This teaches us a couple of things. Employment teams should be looking for job skills training for clients from all possible sources – government, community college, and company-led – now knowing this is the single biggest influencer. The study found it to be more important than the general English language training that is available. They discovered that the typical ESL that occurs for a few hours per week and teaches general conversation has less of an impact. See the report for interesting ways to improve this instruction such as an on-line platform for more cumulative hours, and the very positive effect of tailoring the vocabulary instruction to the work place. 

Dr. Nibbs had thoughts about other issues undermining living wage attainment. It was discovered that refugee clients are not given an understanding that while yes they need to take the first job, there are certain industries that are much more financially rewarding and will pay a living wage. This research has shown that clients by and large had no idea that they would never make ends meet nor advance up the pay scale in certain sectors. It was thought that Case Managers themselves might not be aware of this hierarchy of earning potential by industry sector.

There are a few interesting pilots occurring to address these gaps. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has funded a Career Navigator position in the State of Washington to determine if this can create a bridge for better placements and better information conveyed to refugees. IRC has five Career Development sites that provide to refugees targeted career training one year after arrival for those unemployed. There should be some interesting learnings down the road.

The report is here – – on the home page there is an option to download. 

You may also be interested in checking out Dr. Nibbs’ presentation at Higher’s Second Annual Refugee Employment Conference, which took place in Omaha, NE in November, 2015: .

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Research Study Measures Economic Benefits of Job Upgrades Into Professional Career Tracks

It’s often difficult to help refugees with job upgrades or professional recertification, but the added income for refugees and contribution to the US economy make a  significant difference.  Skilled immigrants increased their average annualized salary by 121% (from an average of $16.967 to $37,490) when they begin working in a better job in their field.  A research study released by Upwardly Global in April of this year, documents and quantifies the economic benefits of employment assistance to help skilled immigrants secure job upgrades related to the careers in which they offer skills and experience.    Look for more resources and examples of job upgrade strategies and successes in professional recertification in the coming months at



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Learning and Growth is a Two-Way Street Between Landscaping Company and Local Refugees

Guest Blog Contribution from Luke Telander, Project Associate for Outreach at LIRS

Edible Yard & Garden is truly an exceptional company for its commitment to environmental responsibility and the empowerment of local refugees. Building on its mission of environmental stewardship, it strives to complement existing flora by including fruit and nut producing trees and bushes in its landscaping, which facilitates local and just food production. Urban environments are food deserts, but by smartly taking advantage of landscaping possibilities, Edible Yard & Garden is taking a step towards environmental justice and food security for everyone.

Located near Clarkston, GA with one of the largest populations of refugees in the Eastern United States, Edible Yard & Garden is also strongly committed to employing refugees at a living wage, capitalizing on the experience and knowledge many refugees bring with them from overseas. To date, Edible Yard & Garden has employed refugees from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. “We learn so much from who we’re working with,” said co-founder Jeremy Lewis. “Many refugees, not having access to resources, have developed more sustainable practices, and have passed them down through tradition,” said co-founder Benjamin Portwood, “For us this is a big asset and very beneficial. Learning has been a two-way street.” Edible Yard and Garden is committed to figuring out ways to value what everyone, in particular the refugee population, can quite literally bring to the table.

Many refugees are particularly poised to contribute much to the discussion surrounding sustainable landscaping, having upheld many of these cultural practices for generations. When one Bhutanese farmer first visited an Edible Yard & Garden demonstration site, he was almost brought to tears, exclaiming, “This is how we do it at home. This plant helps that plant, it is so much easier this way.” With the help of their refugee employees, Edible Yard & Garden has been able to develop ecologies where edible plants complement each other and even serve as pest controls. Through their great appreciation for food practices and significant practical knowledge, the Bhutanese refugee employees have proven a valued asset to the growth of the company.

The relationship between Edible Yard & Garden and its refugee employees strives to be one of solidarity and mutual growth. The organization has been building slowly and is seeking to grow in order to be able to provide steady employment, all while seeking to foster a sense of solidarity through working the earth together. As the organization sets its sight on expansion over the next few years, I am sure refugees will continue to find empowerment and fulfillment in this outstanding company.

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