When new immigrant Diana Valenzuela gets her English up to speed, the United States will be lucky. Back in her native Colombia, she spent 10 years as a process engineer at a leather factory, supervising production and designing the leather finish for shoes, belts, and other products. Afterward, she spent five years as an occupational health coordinator, first at a company that installed and repaired industrial boilers and other specialized machines, and later at a company that manages and disposes of waste. America sorely needs her skills — and Valenzuela, who currently works as an office assistant for an English as a Second Language program, is eager to share them. “I want to work as an engineer again, because there are many opportunities here,” she says.
The United States currently faces a shortage of workers with specialized training in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) fields. A 2017 New American Economy analysis found that the STEM worker shortfall has grown dramatically since 2010, when 5.4 STEM jobs were posted online for every one unemployed STEM worker. By 2016, there were 13 STEM jobs posted online for each unemployed worker, for a total of some 3 million more jobs than there were people qualified and available to fill them. In order to add jobs to the United States economy, employers need workers with highly specialized training in these fields. They need Diana Valenzuela.
Many politicians attack immigrants, but companies appreciate immigrants because we want to work, and we work a lot.
Valenzuela came to the United States in 2014, after her husband, a U.S. citizen, took a job as a building supervisor. He is from Colombia but had already lived for 35 years in the United States when he met Valenzuela on a trip home to visit family. “I changed my country and my life completely,” she says.
Because she didn’t speak English, Valenzuela’s first year was difficult. But her studies and her job at University Settlement, a nonprofit that offers support services to new Americans, have improved her life significantly.“I feel happier every day. I like having the opportunity to improve my English every day. I work with English teachers, so when I’m not sure about a word or say the wrong one, they try to correct me,” she says.
Valenzuela is eager to return to her profession and is currently applying for jobs in engineering and finance. “I think the help provided by organizations like University Settlement is very important to successfully integrate into the American labor market,” she says. Accelerating immigrants’ English proficiency also benefits the regional and national economies; studies show that a lack of English skills is the largest contributor to underemployment and a major contributor to unemployment in the immigrant population. Combined, these factors rob the U.S. economy of tens of billions of dollars in spending power and deprive federal and state governments of billions of dollars in annual tax revenue.
In the meantime, Valenzuela takes satisfaction in her work, which involves managing the organization’s data on each student’s attendance, an important task, since that data helps University Settlement obtain funding.
Valenzuela would like to see more programs that teach English to immigrants. She also hopes that the U.S. government will recognize what many in the private sector already understand, that immigrants make valuable contributions to the U.S. economy, especially when they have the skills employers need — as she does. Consider, for example, that the United States is projected to face a shortage of 1 million STEM workers by 2022, a deficit that threatens America’s ability to compete in the international economy. Or that in Valenzuela’s home state of New York alone, there were already 16.6 STEM jobs advertised online for every unemployed STEM worker in 2015.
“Many politicians attack immigrants, but companies appreciate immigrants because we want to work, and we work a lot,” Valenzuela says.