Building Cultural Capital and Workforce Skills for Immigrants Through Adult Education in the United States

Building Cultural Capital and Workforce Skills for Immigrants Through Adult Education in the United States

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7283-2.ch005
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In the United States, adult education has provided an avenue for immigrants needing basic language acquisition and skills for employment. Immigrants contribute to a diverse landscape by bringing their cultures, language, education, and skill. This chapter focuses on the role of adult education programs in the United States and the ways in which accessible, low-cost language and job skills courses enable adult immigrants to establish social and community networks and prepare for new career pathways. Findings from a small qualitative study on immigrants with college degrees are also discussed to provide context on the value of adult education for establishing communities of support. The chapter ends with recommendations on ways in which communities and governments can support the success of immigrants.
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In the United States, adult education provides an avenue for immigrants needing basic language acquisition and employment skills. Immigrants contribute to a diverse landscape by bringing their cultures and traditions, language, education, and skills. While the United States has many adult learners in post-secondary education, the term “adult education” refers specifically to government-supported programs offered through community colleges (two-year, post-secondary colleges) and schools in each state. This type of culture and language-based education is essential for workforce preparation and successful transition. The United Nations World Migration Report (United Nations, 2020) noted that “Migrants’ inclusion in the receiving society relates to diverse societal/policy areas that are closely interdependent. Inclusion outcomes in one policy area – such as language, education, labour market inclusion, family reunification, political participation and naturalization – will likely impact others” (p. 6).

Despite strong support for adult education programs, traditional approaches may pose barriers to access for immigrants, and assumptions about their needs and abilities have created a system that may no longer meet today’s diverse immigrant population’s needs. The U.S. adult education system was created in 1856 in response to a growing immigrant demographic that needed basic skills and language acquisition. The system was intended to help immigrants integrate by providing courses in language acquisition, vocational skills, and parenting (West, 2005). However, immigrants with a college education have different workplace skills and, therefore, different needs than those the current adult education system addresses. In 2016–17, 9% of the 2.1 million students enrolled in California’s adult education programs reported they had a bachelor’s or higher degree (WestEd, 2018). The work certificates offered through adult education career technical education (CTE) programs are a mismatch for highly skilled college-educated immigrants. Immigrants may experience the phenomenon of brain waste, which has an associated cost to them, their families, and society. This problem poses a significant impediment to thousands of immigrants with post-secondary education attained in their home country who cannot readily enter the American workforce. The purpose of this chapter is to examine how American adult education programs support college-educated immigrants’ development of workplace skills, focusing on programs in California, which is the nation’s largest adult education provider. This chapter will explore adult education in the United States and its role in promoting the development of essential social capital and workplace skills for immigrants as well as in fostering social and economic justice, with a focus on college-educated immigrants.

Social capital is a concept commonly used to understand how inequality persists in society. According to Bourdieu (Huang et al., 2009), individuals foster networks and leverage relationships to increase their skills, knowledge, and abilities—cultural capital that can help them succeed. The concept of capital is important as it equates to specific abilities that are commodified and can be used to advance personal needs and goals (Edgerton & Roberts, 2014). While much has been published about the relationship between cultural capital, education, and individual success, education’s scope and influence on social or civic engagement vary. A meta-analysis of studies on education’s role in fostering social capital finds that schooling contributes to increased social capital, with ensuing societal benefits such as interest in community service and other civic-minded endeavors (Huang et al., 2009).

Key Terms in this Chapter

College-Educated Immigrants: Individuals who earned a post-secondary degree in their country of origin prior to immigrating to another country.

Cultural Capital: Skills, knowledge and abilities learned or developed by individuals that can help them create networks and to increase success.

California: One of the states in the United States of America. With the largest proportion of population in the country, California is home to a large number of immigrants and has one of the strongest adult education and community college systems in the nation.

Literacy Programs: Initiatives offered by federal and state governments to support language instruction, including the development of reading and writing skills.

Job Training Programs: Initiatives offered by federal and state governments to support workforce training or retraining.

Adult Education: Government-funded courses and programs intended to serve adult learners, often in connection with local schools and community colleges.

Community College: A system of low-cost or free post-secondary institutions in the United States that awards two-year degrees (associate of arts; associate of science), and vocational certificates. Community colleges also offer non-credit courses that support professional and vocational education, English language development, and other skills.

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