The U.S. workforce development system continues to focus on developing policies and implementing programs that help Americans prepare for middle skill jobs – indeed, by 2020, more than 70% of jobs in America will require some training beyond high school. Simultaneously, the American workforce continues to diversify – nearly 20% of American workers are immigrants and many are English language learners and/or have received a significant amount of their education and vocational training outside of the U.S. In order to develop effective workforce development policies and practices in this environment, it is critical to understand how diverse populations move from – or stagnate in – low-wage, low-skill work.

Employment outcomes and experiences among the refugee population resettled in the U.S. provide an interesting lens through which to consider these questions. Much of the administrative and survey data regarding refugee employment outcomes that is available through sources such as the national Matching Grant program (provides employment services for six months post-resettlement to a subset of employment ready refugees), refugee employment services offered through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the Annual Survey of Refugees provide a picture of refugee employment outcomes that show relatively high levels of employment upon arrival to the U.S., but also suggest that most refugees begin work in low-skill, low-wage jobs and frequently stay in that type of work, even several years post-arrival.

This paper draws on: 1) administrative program data collected from nearly 700 individuals participating in International Rescue Committee career programs (workforce development programs that are explicitly focused on supporting refugees – regardless of previous professional experience or educational background – to move into higher-skill, higher-wage jobs); 2) in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 40 refugees from nearly a dozen countries that have participated in International Rescue Committee career programs and; 3) interviews with nearly 20 program staff and key stakeholders that are implementing refugee-serving career programs. The paper examines several key issues including wage and job progression outcomes among IRC career program participants, issues and patterns surrounding enrollment in and attainment of industry-aligned credentials, variations among program model and intervention approaches, and variations in client engagement and outcomes in sector-specific programs that are aligned to key industries. The breadth of the administrative program data – it includes refugees accessing career programming in more than ten cities, refugees that come from more than two dozen nations, refugees with tremendous variation in educational background, and refugees engaged in career programming aligned with a wide variety of industry sectors – affords a unique opportunity to consider variations in refugee outcomes and experiences. The inclusion of qualitative interviews (clients and staff/stakeholders) adds depth and context to this analysis. Further, the paper presents some initial suggestions on how findings from this analysis could inform key workforce development policy decisions at the federal, state, and local level.