Immigration and the American Labor Force

The United States has long touted its reputation as a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities that contributes to the country’s unique economic and social dynamism.  For the past hundred years, and arguably since its founding, the United States has been unprecedentedly capable of attracting the talent and dreams of those around the world.  This phenomenon has made the United States a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship while laying a firm foundation for continued prosperity and growth.  Many immigrants made invaluable contributions to the American business communities, from people like Andrew Carnegie to the modern day founders of companies like Google, Intel, Yahoo!, and eBay.  Others have contributed much to the innovative science and technology fields from Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi to present-day inventors like Vinod Khosla – founder of Sun Microsystems and clean-tech venture capitalist.

While not every immigrant will turn into a business icon or a tinkering titan, their skills continue to be critical for the U.S. economy.  They continue to play a major role in the structure of the American workforce and remain vital to numerous industries.  They are a source of needed skills, especially in the competitive high-tech sectors, and continuing to attract such talent is crucial for American economic competitiveness.  In addition, as the U.S. population continues to age, the labor force will become increasingly dependent upon immigrants to spur labor growth and fill jobs.  A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution provides data on the important place that immigration has in the American labor force and the economy as a whole.

The data and research make a few key points about immigrant workers.  They are a disproportionately growing segment of the labor force, making up about 16.4% compared to only 12.9% of the total population.  Ironically, they are making up a decreasing proportion of labor force growth most recently as overall immigration has slowed for a myriad of reasons, which  could include a less attractive business and labor climate along with murmurs of xenophobia as many Americans struggle to find work.  The study shows they make up a significant portion of the labor pool in industries like warehousing, accommodation, administration, food services, and agriculture on the low- skilled end.  In the high-skilled sectors, they are significantly represented in information technology, high-tech manufacturing, life sciences, and healthcare.  In those industries, immigrants are often more educated than their native counterparts, evidence of the added value they continue to bring to the American pool of intellectual capital.  Conversely, that same level of education seriously lags in the low-skilled industries.

The data and evidence shown in the report reaffirms America’s long-held belief in the importance of immigration, especially in high-skilled industries.  As such, smart immigration reform that continues to welcome these individuals is of great importance to the U.S. and its economic competitiveness.  As more and more countries develop and become able to provide the opportunities only America once did, the competition for top-notch talent will only increase.  The U.S. should implement a sound strategy that ensures that its firms and labs retain access to world-class talent that will drive the U.S. economy into recovery and future prosperity.

Posted by Brian Gowen

Sources: The Brookings Institution

Photo credit Lady Liberty courtesy of flickr user laverrue

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