Immigration reform is back on the agenda in Washington, and one of the most disputed questions, this year as in past immigration debates, is whether the U.S. needs more less-skilled foreign workers.
Does the U.S. economy lack workers? Do less-skilled immigrants take jobs from Americans? Or are they filling jobs that most Americans are unable or unwilling to do because the work is physically demanding, hazardous or in a part of the country where few Americans live?
This study uses the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Information Network, or O*NET, to examine similarities and differences in the jobs held by foreign workers and U.S.-born workers.
American workers' educational attainment has improved dramatically in recent decades, and low-skilled immigrants are filling a gap created by rising education levels among Americans. In 1950, more than half of U.S.-born workers had not completed high school. Today the figure is less than 5 percent - compared to nearly one-quarter of immigrant workers.
This education gap has dramatic consequences in the workplace: immigrants now account for one in six workers in the U.S. and more than half the less-skilled workers. But the education gap alone does not explain the difference in the jobs held by immigrants and those held by less-skilled Americans.
Even among less-skilled workers, Americans and immigrants tend to work in different fields. Low-skilled Americans are twice as likely as low-skilled immigrants to work in offices or administrative support jobs. They're also twice as likely as immigrants to work in sales. In contrast, low-skilled immigrants are three times more likely than low-skilled Americans to fill farming, fishing and forestry jobs.
And even when they work in the same sector, Americans and immigrants tend to gravitate to different jobs. Four in ten low-skilled Americans working in the transportation and moving sector are truck drivers, compared to fewer than three in ten low-skilled immigrants in the field. Conversely, only 5 percent of American transportation and moving workers are hand packers and packagers, compared to 17 percent of immigrants in the sector.
What's the difference between a truck driver and a packer on a moving crew? One requires a driver's license and more familiarity with the lay of the land in the United States, is somewhat less physically demanding and arguably commands higher prestige.
The Department of Labor's O*NET database helps explain what drives immigrants and Americans to different jobs.
Less-skilled native-born workers have a comparative advantage in jobs that require communications skills and managerial ability. Less-skilled immigrants have a comparative advantage in jobs that require physical strength and stamina: labor-intensive occupations such as building maintenance, landscaping, construction, food processing, food preparation and food service.
Still another way to compare jobs done by immigrants and Americans is to measure how physically taxing they are. How much bending, stretching, crouching, exposure to the elements, exposure to hazardous conditions and exposure to extreme weather does the job require? How much repetitive motion? How much exposure to contaminants.
The Department of Labor's O*NET database tracks and measures the attributes of every U.S. occupation, rating each on 224 different dimensions from how much English-language ability is needed to how much bending, stretching, crouching and exposure to the elements. Every job is scored numerically along each of these dimensions, with zero signifying that the job never requires that skill or physical endurance and 100 indicating that the job requires it every day or all the time.
Less-skilled Americans work in difficult conditions - outdoors, on their feet, in jobs that require repetitive motion and expose them to contaminants. But less-skilled immigrants work in jobs that are even dirtier, more dangerous and more difficult.
Consider jobs that put workers in a position to sustain burns, cuts, bites or stings. The average O*NET score on that dimension for jobs commonly held by low-skilled American workers is 41; the average O*NET score for jobs commonly held by low-skilled immigrants is 45.
So too with bending and twisting. The average score on that dimension for low-skilled American workers is 51; the average score for low-skilled immigrants, 57. Less-skilled immigrants spend on average 13 percent more time climbing ladders, scaffolds or poles and working in high places. They spend 12 percent more time kneeling, crouching or crawling. Their jobs involve 10 percent more exposure to hazardous conditions, 7 percent more exposure to contaminants and 6 percent more use of hazardous equipment.
No matter what kind of physical intensity is being measured - outdoor work, repetitive motions, hazardous conditions, hazardous equipment, contaminants, kneeling, crouching, burns, cuts, bites or stings - the jobs held by immigrants are more physically taxing and more hazardous than jobs held by less-skilled American workers.
A final factor that limits competition between American workers and immigrants is geography.
Less-skilled immigrants and less-skilled Americans tend to live in different parts of the country, with immigrants typically drawn to areas with growing economies or immigrant enclaves. Low-skilled immigrants are also more likely than low-skilled Americans to move in search of work.
In 2005, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some 100,000 immigrant workers migrated to Louisiana to assist with rebuilding, demolition, waste removal and sheet-rock installation, among other jobs.
This ready mobility is one of the key ways low-skilled immigrants contribute to U.S. economic growth. Low-skilled immigration helps ensure that there are workers where and when employers need them, and this in turn decreases the chances of low-skilled immigrants competing with low-skilled Americans.
An Essential Workforce
Low-skilled immigrants, many of them unauthorized, meet a vital need for employers in a broad spectrum of essential industries. Immigrants rarely compete with Americans. They bring different strengths and skills. Most of the jobs they do cannot be automated. Most cannot be moved offshore. And many of the jobs held by immigrants support and create jobs for American workers.
Low-skilled immigrants contribute to economic growth by relocating to booming areas that need workers. They free up Americans to work in better jobs using their comparative advantage in communications and management. Immigrants available to fill jobs as house cleaners, gardeners and nannies have allowed millions of American women to work outside the home. Low-skilled immigration reduces the prices of the goods and services consumed by Americans. And it preserves American jobs by slowing the movement of companies and operations overseas.
Implications for Policy
Despite the economic benefits of low-skilled immigration, the United States makes it extremely difficult for less-skilled foreigners to enter the country to work. Creating a workable legal path for them to enter the U.S. and fill jobs when there are no willing and able Americans would have significant benefits for the workers, their employers and the rest of the nation - for economic reasons but also because of what it would do to restore the rule of law.
As the U.S. economy becomes more technology-intensive, there is less demand for low-skilled workers. But there will always be some need, and there are increasingly few Americans available to meet it. Educational attainment, comparative advantage, physical stamina and geographic mobility position low-skilled immigrant workers to fill this critical gap. Surely it's only common sense to create a way for them to enter the country legally.