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Katie Nielson, Founder of EnGen: Tapping into the Hidden Workforce

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Katie Nielson, Founder of EnGen: Tapping into the Hidden Workforce


As U.S. employers continue to struggle to find workers, they may want to turn their attention to populations who have the skills they need but lack proficiency in English. This describes many people in immigrant and refugee populations who are currently overlooked by employers and make up part of what is called the "hidden workforce." On this episode of WorkforceRx, Katie Nielson, PhD, joins Futuro Health CEO Van Ton Quinlivan to describe how she works with employers to tap the potential of this talent pool. Nielson has a growing sense of urgency on this issue due to the fact that by 2030, every baby boomer will have reached retirement age and 97% of net workforce growth will be immigrants and their children.  “The biggest barrier to integration in general and, definitely to promotion and advancement in the workforce, is English skills,” she says. “If we think about English as something that we can do to help upskill our workforce, then we'll be able to get those learners not just the English skills but also the workforce skills that they need to succeed.” Tune in to learn about Nielson’s blend of tech-enabled study and interaction, the wisdom of taking a “backwards design” approach, and how workplace-based language programs can help employers achieve goals around diversity, equity and inclusion.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.

As U.S. employers continue to struggle with finding workers, they may want to turn their attention to populations who have the skills they need but lack proficiency in English. This describes many people in immigrant and refugee populations who are currently overlooked by employers and make up part of what is called the “hidden workforce.” If provided with upscaling in English, these people could become a resource for hard-to-fill positions and give employers the flexibility to promote from within.

Our guest today, Katie Nielson, works with employers to tap the potential of this talent pool. She has a PhD in Second Language Acquisition and is Founder of EnGen, an online platform that delivers need-based English instruction to immigrants and refugees with the aim of boosting their chances for economic success.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Katie.

Katie Nielson: Thanks for having me.

Van: Can you start by giving us some numbers to provide context? How many immigrants, refugees and speakers of other languages are currently in the workforce or could be in the workforce, if they received language support?

Katie: That’s a great question. There are almost 30 million foreign-born workers in the workforce. Of course, some of them do speak English fluently, but I would say that the majority probably do not. We know that there are 2 million foreign workers in the United States who are either unemployed or underemployed, which means they have credentials, certifications, and experiences from their home countries that they aren’t applying here just because they don’t have the English skills they need to do so.

Van: Wow. Those are big numbers that could be redeployed in a very productive way. So, what are some of the barriers for immigrants, refugees and speakers of other languages? What do they face when it comes to entering the workforce or moving up in the workforce?

Katie: The biggest barrier to integration in general and, definitely to promotion and advancement in the workforce, is English skills. One of the hardest things that we ask adults to do is learn a second language. We all speak our first languages without even thinking about it, and the minute we go to use our second language — unless we’ve spent a lot of time working on it — we immediately realize that we have difficulty communicating what we want to communicate.

So, when you think about this population of people in the workforce, they are blocked because they have trouble understanding what’s expected of them. They have trouble communicating with colleagues. They have trouble understanding the employee training manuals and onboarding materials and training materials. Sometimes a workplace, if they have a large population of speakers of a specific language, will do some of that training and onboarding in the first language of the workers, but that’s where that ends.

So then, you have a population of workers who are in an environment where they can’t communicate and they can’t get new information because they don’t have English skills. That’s a huge barrier. Then in general, immigrants and refugees tend to face the same barriers that other under-resourced populations face. They are discriminated against because of the color of their skin; they’re discriminated against because of their foreign accents; they are discriminated against because of a perceived lack of education. And so, they’re working against systemic barriers and also a language barrier to get ahead.

Van: Katie, could you give us an example of a company that has really effectively worked at the entry-level with this population? And how do you transition them into these jobs and then move them up? Tell us more about an employer who has done this well.

Katie: One example of an employer that’s done it well is a group of restaurants called Taziki’s Mediterranean Café . It’s actually a chain of restaurants that’s based in Birmingham, Alabama. They focus on getting English skills for their back of the house workers so that they can move into positions that require communication with the public. There have been a couple of recent news stories about that particular employer and the work they’ve done with their workforce to get them ready for customer-facing roles and really investing in getting them English skills.

Another employer that comes to mind is actually the University of Maryland. For the last couple of years, it has really invested in helping, for example, residential facility staff get access to English skills so they can get promoted within the workplace and take advantage of the educational benefits that the rest of the university is offering.

I’m now working with a number of large employers through Guild Education — companies like Walmart and Target — who are helping their frontline workers with foundational skills, including English skills, so that they can take advantage of other educational benefits and also just get themselves in a position to communicate in the workplace and become eligible for jobs that have the potential for more economic mobility.

Van: You mentioned Taziki’s Cafe, University of Maryland, Walmart, etc. Just compare and contrast for our listeners: what is an effective English learning strategy versus ineffective practice that you’ve seen?

Katie: I could teach a whole university course on this! The United States, historically, has tended to mostly have ineffective language learning strategies, teaching the same thing to everyone regardless of their starting proficiency level and regardless of their needs. One-size-fits-all programs really don’t work for anyone when you’re talking about helping people acquire skills.

If you think about a different skill — let’s say I was trying to teach a whole class of people how to ride a bike — if I lectured at them about bike riding and I gave them worksheets to fill out with pictures of bikes and I made them take quizzes on the parts of the bike and answer questions about balance, that’d be great. And then, the minute they went out and tried to ride a bike, they all fall off because they didn’t actually learn how to do it. Adults learn by doing, and when we teach them languages, we need to make it relevant to their needs and give them the skills to use them right away.

So, personalization is really important to a workplace language program — making sure it meets the needs of the workers and the employer — and adaptability is important so that learners are getting the right kind of language practice at the right time.

The third thing that makes an effective workplace program is flexibility. We know this from thinking about adult learners across the board. They have many demands on their time. They have many things that they need to accomplish during the workday and outside of it. If you can build a training program that is mobile-friendly, that adults can access anytime, anywhere, it works a lot better than having a program that’s dependent on them coming to a specific place at a specific time.

Van: What I heard from you is that learning needs to be personalized, adaptive and flexible. So, those are the best practices?

Katie: Yes. Yes. Sorry. I should have just led with that!

Van: Well, I appreciate all the knowledge that went into that. And yet, what is so interesting is in our world of higher education, for example, it is the opposite of these three tenants that you’ve just laid out.

Katie: It’s true. One thing about higher education — specifically with ESL — is that those programs at most institutions of higher education tend to be very outdated. Learners will have to take nine required classes before they’re allowed to even access a workforce class, a career and training class, a class that helps them towards their degree or certificate or credential. Learners just get stuck in a cycle of having to take these foundational classes over and over again and never get out of them. So, we don’t give people an efficient way of getting the skills they need to get on with their lives, which is why I actually think employers are driving this change. I’m seeing more employers trying to do it themselves from within rather than relying on a system that just doesn’t work outside through an institution of higher education.

Van: That is good to hear that the employers are stepping in. I do know from a Student Success Task Force of the California Community Colleges that if you are in remediation courses for over a year, you would never get out of that path. So, having learning contextualized, and especially English contextualized, is so important to the workplace.

Well, speaking about workplace, in healthcare, there is a need for many more culturally-competent workers who are able to provide more effective care to the populations from which they come. Can you talk about ways to close this gap because there’s certainly not the level of participation from our underserved communities in healthcare.

Katie: It’s true, and I think part of it is creating programs that are welcoming to underserved communities and that give them the resources that they need to succeed. You and I have talked before about communities of care and how they work much better when they reflect the people who live in those communities. We have a problem in the United States: if you are a white person who was educated in the United States and you speak multiple languages, everyone holds you up as this amazing person who is bilingual. But if you are a brown person who comes here speaking your own language fluently and you’re learning English, people are not clamoring around talking about how amazing it is that you’re bilingual. They’re talking from a deficit perspective that you are an ELL and we have to do something about you.

So, I think we need to shift the focus towards empowering members of the community to understand that they can get help with English and that we won’t hold them for a year in remedial English classes. Instead, we’ll help them quickly get the English they need to start working on allied healthcare credentials to get them into those roles. Part of it is in the recruitment process and then in the supports that we offer to those language learners.

Van: Remind our audience if you could, Katie, about the acronyms ESL and ELL.

Katie: So, ESL refers to English as a Second Language. We sometimes hear ESOL, which is English for Speakers of Other Languages. ELL is English Language Learner. I try to talk about immigrants, refugees, and speakers of other languages to be inclusive of all of the categories of the language learners that we are working with.

Van: So, if Katie Nielson was rewriting our immigration policies with workforce needs in mind, what kind of system would you design?

Katie: I would design a system where everybody in the United States who wants to work can get access to the resources that they need to get a job with the potential for economic mobility. What often happens with refugee training programs is that the focus is on getting you into a job right away. So, people end up in “survival jobs” and then they lose any sort of access to English instructions so they stay stuck in those jobs.

I would like to see a program that’s sponsored by the United States government that helps people to get a first survival job, but that’s not the end. The end goal is to get you into a job where you can continue to progress and rise up the ladder and get the training and resources that you need to do those things.

Van: In a way, you’re advocating for continuous learning.

Katie: Yes.

Van: But the learning would be tied to your workplace context or the occupation…

Katie: Exactly. And if you think about adult learning in general, the learning that we all do as adults tends to be tied to our workplace context. You get your job and then you realize what job you want next, and you start thinking about the skills you need for that job. We just haven’t thought as a country about English as a skill like this. If we think about English as something that we can do to help upskill our workforce, then we’ll be able to get those learners not just the English skills but also the workforce skills that they need to succeed.

Van: What’s so interesting these days is we’ve recognized that English is in the range of the basic skills of employment, but there’s also digital skills now that have come into the bucket of basic skills for employment, right? What’s your thought on how people acquire both of those skill sets?

Katie: That we need to do it together. I think National Skills Coalition did a report last year or the year before that showed that if you look at all the English language learners, 40% of them have almost no digital skills, which means that we need to address both of these problems at once. We need to help people get the digital skills they need not just for the training that they’re doing right now, but for the jobs that they’re going to get. There isn’t a single job that doesn’t require the use of technology. We need to integrate digital skills with other foundational skills like language learning. You can’t isolate them. I always think about this through the perspective of language, but fundamentally, language is a tool that we use to do something else. So, we should start with something else and get people to language skills they need to do that. It’s backwards design.

Van: Much of your career has been around leveraging technology to develop more accessible and effective language learning acquisition. You hold 10 patents on technology designed to deliver AI-driven language learning, and to do so at scale. Tell us more about that.

Katie: I started my career working with Mexican migrant workers on an apple orchard when I was 20 years old and I really quickly realized that first of all, that is a terrible solution to the problem of helping people get English skills — you shouldn’t rely on untrained volunteers — and you cannot reach all of the people who need language training if you don’t use technology.

So, I’ve focused on figuring out what we can do with technology to make learning more efficient so that we can leverage humans and teachers and administrators and caseworkers to do what people do best. I’ve never tried to turn language learning into something you can do by yourself with the computer because it isn’t. You need to talk to people, you need to get feedback from people.

But it goes back to personalization: what makes language learning work best is when you’re learning something that is personally relevant to you. An individual teacher can’t figure that out for 30 students in his class, but if we can use technology to personalize the instruction that those learners get outside of the classroom, then inside the classroom the teacher can work with all of them one-on-one or in small groups to take advantage of all the data that they’ve generated outside. So, that’s what my patents are all about… on how to figure out what you might need in order to get your language skills up, and then deliver it to you just in time at the right level with the right feedback.

Van: You’ve started a company called EnGen as a result. What part of the workforce puzzle are you trying to tackle with this company?

Katie: EnGen’s mission is to remove English as a barrier for immigrants, refugees and speakers of other languages. Our whole mission is really around helping workers and people who want to get jobs to acquire the English skills they need for credentials and to remove barriers for them. That’s the part of the puzzle that we’re trying to tackle and we’re trying to do it in a few ways.

One way is to extend the reach of current providers. For example, helping organizations like Queens Public Library reach more language learners so that they can help more people get into jobs that are high-value jobs. We also are working directly with employers to help them upskill their incumbent workers with English skills so that they can be eligible for promotion and advancement and so that they can get opportunity inside the organizations they’re working for.

This is a win-win for employers because if they can upskill their existing talent pool with English so that they can move up into jobs further along inside the company, they open up entry-level jobs for more workers who maybe have limited English skills but can come get those as a starting point jobs. We’re also working with workforce development organizations and job training organizations so that they don’t overlook immigrants and refugees.

There’s this huge national focus on re-skilling and upskilling and preparing workers for the jobs of the future, but we pretty much systematically leave out people who don’t speak English. You read about technology boot camps and coding schools and places where you can bypass formal education and get an apprenticeship and learn how to be a coder, but they’re not opening those positions up to people who don’t speak English. So, a lot of the conversations I have are with organizations that are thinking about upskilling to make sure they don’t overlook whole populations of learners when they are figuring out who they should be upskilling.

Van: Let me just spotlight this: who has a vested interest in investing in the language skills of this hidden workforce?

Katie: It depends. The employer has an interest in investing in the language skills because by 2030, every single baby boomer will have reached retirement age and 97% of net workforce growth will be immigrants and their children. So, if we don’t start investing in helping this population of new Americans get the English skills they need, there will be nobody left to do those jobs.

At the same time, we have this broad concern about a “talent shortage” and I completely disagree that there is a talent shortage. I think we’re thinking about talent the wrong way. We are overlooking people who bring all sorts of skills through alternative routes — such as degrees from their home countries and skills they’ve gotten on the job here — and we overlook them because they don’t have language skills or they don’t have a degree from the United States. And so, it’s in the interest of the employer to reframe how they think about talent so they can fill their existing jobs.

I would say it’s also in the interest of everybody to help immigrants, refugees and speakers of other languages in the U.S. get English skills so that they can participate in their communities. Whether they’re participating in civics, whether they’re being able to help their kids with their homework, whether they’re able to understand what’s going on around them…we thrive as a country, as a nation of immigrants, when we can all communicate with each other.

Van: I have a side question for you, Katie. One of the most popular companies out of China is actually a technology platform that teaches English to the Chinese population, and that’s fairly common across Asia because the acquisition of English equates to a status symbol.

Katie: Yes.

Van: Is there anything that we can learn from their models for application in the U.S.?

Katie: I would tell you that having looked at the outcomes from many commercially available language learning programs, there is not a ton of data to support that self-study and language programs actually do very much. That’s actually how we started. My career was one of working on my PhD and doing research on commercially available, self-study language learning programs.

There’s a lot to learn about how languages are learned, but I think it comes from understanding how cognition works and then how to leverage technology for distance learning. What you want is something that’s truly blended like the model that I’ve been talking about where learners work on their own with personalized language learning materials, and then they synthesize that in live interactions, whether those are virtual or in person.

Van: It’s good that you have brought your formal training and your Ph.D. into this field. That is much needed to unlock the capabilities of the hidden workforce. Any final parting advice for us, Katie, as we think about how to grow the workforce with the right skills at the right time?

Katie: I think I would say that people in the United States tend to be monolingual, and they tend to think of language learning as something that’s almost impossible. It’s not, we’ve just been doing it the wrong way. I’ve seen tens of thousands of language learners get English skills really quickly when those English skills are relevant to their needs and related to their jobs. And so, I would encourage employers to think about workplace-based language programs as a way to promote from within and promote diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplaces because we can’t have an inclusive recovery from Covid-19 or an inclusive workplace if we can’t hear all of the voices of all of the people in our communities.

Van: There you have it…more sage advice on how to do DEI correctly in your company. Thank you very much, Katie, for being with us today.

Katie: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.