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How to make the most of Worcester’s global talent pool?

MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona invited Chamber members to join her in advocating for investments in integration and policies to protect vulnerable immigrants.

As President and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Tim Murray represents a wide range of business leaders, more than 2,000 in all. But despite their diversity, they share a common challenge.

“The single biggest issue that I hear from our members… is the need for a motivated, educated workforce,” Murray said. And immigration, he added, is “clearly a major component of that.”

Worcester is home to about 40,000 foreign-born people, and the Worcester Metro Area, to about 100,000 – from Ghanaians to Vietnamese, Brazilians to Albanians. More than one-fifth of the city’s population is foreign-born, more than double the share in 1990.

And as in many Massachusetts cities, immigrants are a crucial part of the work force in everything from construction and transportation, to health care and technology. They’re also a key part of Worcester’s entrepreneur base, especially when it comes to the restaurant and food-service sectors.

So when the Chamber teamed up with the new Massachusetts Business Coalition on Immigration (MBIC) to host a roundtable discussion on immigration, more than 40 Chamber members joined in, eager to share their concerns and their ideas about how to make the most of Worcester’s global talent.

The invitation had outlined some of the key challenges faced by Worcester businesses today: Highly skilled professionals are stuck in low-paid jobs that don’t use their expertise. Language barriers keep excellent workers from getting promoted. Entrepreneurs eager to start new businesses find it too difficult to navigate through the process. And some companies’ most valued employees are living in fear that harsh new immigration policies will cost them their work permits and break up their families.

In his welcoming remarks, Murray noted that a record-high 75% of Americans said immigration is a positive for the country in a recent survey. Given the importance of immigrants to Worcester’s work force, and the city’s large share of immigrant business owners, the Chamber is “very proudly” going to engage in the new business coalition, Murray said. “But we can’t do it alone. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder with our members.”

MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona, a longtime Worcester resident, invited the group to think about what they could do together “to make sure this work force is integrated, protected and fully contributing.” She explained MIRA’s vision of integration as a two-way process, in which immigrants and refugees do their best to adapt to life in America, but communities also welcome them and help them learn what they need and make new connections.

Language is a key barrier to overcome, Millona said. In Worcester, about half of foreign-born people report speaking English less than “very well,” while nearly 80% of native-born people speak only English, Census data show. Increased access to English classes for adults, targeted job training and other programs can dramatically improve the outlook for immigrants, Millona noted.

Laura Richardson, of IPG Photonics, raised concerns about difficulties obtaining H-1B visas.

“If we have your voice to advocate with us for these integration programs, it will be of benefit to our entire Commonwealth,” she said.

Millona also invited Chamber members to join MIRA in advocating for the Safe Communities Act, legislation to reduce barriers to practice for foreign-trained health professionals, and at the federal level, legislation to provide protection and a path to citizenship for both Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, among other policy goals.

“Let’s leave the politics aside and focus on how we can partner together,” Millona said.

Michael K. Durkin, president of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, echoed that sentiment, noting that the “moral imperative” for improving U.S. immigration policies “is surpassed by the economic imperative.”

Participants shared their own stories of struggling to fill jobs, wanting to help workers who are stuck because of language or other barriers, and worrying about the hostility that many immigrants feel due to the federal government’s policies. They also noted that the number of people coming in has declined.

Laura Richardson, human resources manager at IPG Photonics, said her company has seen a sharp drop in the share of H-1B visas approved by the federal government, only to 25% of those sought by IPG Photonics this year. “This is a big problem for us,” she said, adding that the jobs filled by immigrants at IPG (some with, some without H-1Bs) range from scientists and design engineers, to entry-level assemblers.

Gladys Rodriguez-Parker, senior district representative for U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, noted that foreign-born people work all across Worcester, with particularly strong representation in health care.

“We have to figure out the stake that we have in each other,” she said. The only way to solve the problems we face is to address them directly, she added: “It can’t be a soft conversation. It has to be: ‘This is reality. This is the new America.’ ”

Tim Murray, President and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, with MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona.