Workers who fill labor-intensive jobs are a critical part of the economy. They clean homes and offices. They power our factories. They harvest crops by hand. However—even as demand for such workers has remained strong—demographic trends are shrinking the pool of native-born individuals willing and able to perform such physically difficult work. This has made the presence of immigrant workers critical to the survival of many U.S. businesses. Rather than hurt other workers, they often help companies expand, creating more attractive opportunities for American workers.
Over the last two decades, the size of the U.S.-born population with a high school degree or less has significantly decreased. This trend is particularly evident among young workers, ages 25-44, the group typically most capable of doing physically demanding work. As this population declined, however, the number of jobs for workers with that education level held steady. Thus, real and persistent gaps in the American workforce have opened up, especially in agriculture, hospitality, and meatpacking. Foreign-born workers—a group considerably more likely than natives to lack education beyond high school—step in to fill those jobs that would otherwise remain vacant.
1 New American Economy, “A Crucial Piece of the Puzzle: Demographic Change and Why Immigrants are Needed to Fill America’s Less-Skilled Labor Gap,” March 2014. Available online.
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Industry-Occupation Employment Matrix 2014-2024, April 2016. Available online.
|12.3 million: Decline in the size of the native population, ages 25-44, with a high school diploma or less, 1990-2010.1|
|8.0 million: Decline in the number of U.S.-born women, 25-44, with that level of education.|
|51.8 million: Number of jobs requiring less than a bachelor's degree in our economy, 2015.|
|5 million: Number of additional less-skilled jobs that will be created by 2024.2|
|3.6 million: Projected shortage of less skilled workers by 2024.|
|Education Level||Foreign-Born Population||Native-Born Population|
|Less Than High School||29.8%||9.6%|
|High School & Some College||41.6%||60.0%|
The foreign-born make up 16.5 percent of the working-age population in the United States. In some particularly labor-intensive fields, their role is much greater. From 2008 to 2012, for instance, immigrants made up 72.9 percent of field and crop workers. In other large industries, such as construction, foreign-born workers frequently take on the most physically demanding roles, while U.S.-born workers frequently prefer positions that require more English-language skills or experience in management or customer service. In fact, of the top 10 occupations with the largest share of immigrant workers, nine of them are labor-intensive in nature or involve repetitive, manual tasks.
3 Author’s analysis of 2015 American Community Survey data.
|Occupation||Share of Workers, Foreign-Born|
|Plasterers and Stucco Masons||72.0%|
|Aircraft Structure, Surfaces, Rigging, and Systems Assemblers||66.8%|
|Sewing Machine Operators||55.3%|
|Pressers of Textiles, Garments, and Related Materials||54.4%|
|Drywall Installers, Ceiling Tile Installers, and Tapers||52.8%|
|Misc. Agricultural Workers, Including Workers who Pick Crops in the Field||52.2%|
|Personal Appearance Workers, such as Manicurists||51.4%|
|Painters in the Construction and Maintenance Industries||51.4%|
|Medical Scientists, and Life Scientists, all Other||50.8%|
|Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners||50.6%|
Across communities and industries, employers report trouble finding enough workers. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of field and crop workers in America declined by 146,000, causing major labor shortages on U.S. farms. A rapidly aging population also strains the healthcare workforce, a problem likely to worsen as more Baby Boomers retire. In many fields, immigrants can and do help businesses find the workers they need to compete and grow.
4 “2016/2017 Talent Shortage Survey: The United States Results,” ManpowerGroup, n.d., Available online.
5 Home Care Pulse. “2015 Private Duty Benchmarking Study.” April 2015.
6 New American Economy, "International Harvest: A Case Study of How Foreign Workers Help American Farms Grow Crops – and the Economy," May 2013. Available online.
|46 percent: Percent of U.S. employers that struggled to find enough workers in 2015, according to the ManPower Group, a human relations consultancy.4|
|#1: Ranking that ManpowerGroup gives to the “skilled trades” of the hardest occupations to fill in 2015. This category includes welders, plasterers, and electricians.|
|62.8 percent: Share of home health aide administrators who cited “caregiver shortages” as one of the top three threats facing their business in 2015.5|
|348,000: Estimated number of additional home health aide jobs that will be created between 2014 and 2024.|
|Number of Farm Jobs Advertised in State Employment agencies||6,500|
|Number of American Workers who Applied||265|
|Number of those Workers who Made it Through the Harvest Season||7|
|Share of Open Farm Jobs Filled by U.S. Workers||0.1%|
Although long a controversial issue among academics and policymakers, there is widespread evidence that the presence of more immigrants with relatively low levels of education does not substantially displace U.S.-born workers. Instead, a greater supply of less-skilled immigrants is linked to a decrease in offshoring7 and an expansion of firms on U.S. soil8—resulting in net benefits for U.S.-born workers across the board. The unique way in which immigrants frequently slot into the workforce—gravitating toward more manual or repetitive tasks—also means an influx of less-skilled immigrants has only a moderate impact, if any, on the wages of less-educated U.S.-born workers, particularly over the long term. Instead, they compete most directly with other immigrant workers.9
7 Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano, Giovanni Peri, and Greg C. Wright, “Immigration, Offshoring and American Jobs," National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2010. Available online.
8 William W. Olney, “IMMIGRATION AND FIRM EXPANSION,” Journal of Regional Science 53 (2013), doi:10.1111/jors.12004.
9 Heidi Shierholz, “Immigration and Wages: Methodological Advancements Confirm Modest Gains for Native Workers,” February 4, 2010. Available online.
11 Findings come from an NAE report that examines the benefit of a one standard deviation increase in birthplace diversity among workers in the bottom half of all earners in a given workplace or metropolitan area. More details can be found in the full report, available here.
12 Based on an analysis of 1998-2008 data; William W. Olney, “IMMIGRATION AND FIRM EXPANSION,” Journal of Regional Science 53 (2013), doi:10.1111/jors.12004.
|Less Than High School||0.3%||-3.7%|
|Wage Benefit Felt by Other Low-Wage Workers (Bottom 25% of Earners)||Wage Benefit Felt by Workers Overall|
|In the Same Metropolitan Area||2.1%||1.6%|
|At the Same Employer||0.3%||0.4%|
|Number of Business Establishments Overall||2.5%|
|Number of Small Business Establishments||2.4%|
|Number of Establishments doing Mobile, Less-skilled Intensive Work (such as Manufacturing, Transportation, and Warehousing)||3.1%|
In 2014, more than 56 percent of entry-level farmworkers in the United States were immigrants. Given this, changes in immigrant labor supply tend to ripple across the U.S. agriculture economy. In the last decade, a 75 percent slowdown in the arrival of young, low-skilled immigrant farmworkers meant shortages for entry-level field and crop positions. Many farmers report that the H-2A visa program, which allows the recruitment of foreign-born farmworkers, is too cumbersome and expensive—leaving them few ways to replenish their workforce. The result is many farms cutting their production of fresh fruits and vegetables.13
13 “NCAE Survey of 2010 H-2A Employers - Final Summary," National Council of Agricultural Employers, December 2011. Available online.
|146,000: Decline in the number of field and crop workers, 2002-2014.|
|2.7 percent: Share of this decline offset by native-born workers over the same period.|
|$3.1 billion: Estimated amount lost in fresh produce sales per year due to a shortage of low-skilled immigrant labor.|
|Area||Drop in Number of Field and Crop Workers||Percent Decrease|
|Colorado, Nevada, and Utah||-4,244||-36.7%|
|Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina||-6,956||-26.9%|
|New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware||-5,716||-19.5%|
|Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin||-4,434||-14.9%|
|Arizona, New Mexico||-1,853||-14.0%|
|North Carolina, Virginia||-3,798||-13.4%|
Although immigrants already help fill gaps in the U.S. labor force, our current immigration system does not allow employers to recruit enough of the specific workers they need. Employers can sponsor low-skilled workers for an agricultural visa (the H-2A visa), or for a visa designed to meet seasonal demand at venues like hotels, amusement parks, and ski resorts (the H-2B visa). Both programs, however, are cumbersome and outdated. And many of the fields that struggle the most to find workers, including healthcare and construction, lack a dedicated visa altogether. Improvements must be made so more industries—and specific geographies—can recruit temporary foreign-born workers when no Americans are available for the job.
14 “NCAE Survey of 2010 H-2A Employers - Final Summary, "National Council of Agricultural Employers, December 2011. Available online.
|1 in 3: Share of businesses that said they would close or reduce their operations if they could not hire foreign workers through temporary visas.|
|107,719: H-2B applications filed in 2014.|
|66,000: People allowed to enter the United States on H-2B visas each year.|
|72 percent: Share of farms that went through the H-2A visa application process only to receive workers late in 2010.14|
New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…
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