New Study from the Bookings Institution and the Partnership Details the Different Roles Immigrant and Native-Born Workers Play in the US Economy

Immigration Adds to the Diversity of Skill in the Workforce and Even when Working the Same Sectors, Immigrants and Native-Born Workers Gravitate Towards Different Jobs

The Brookings Institution and the Partnership for a New American Economy today released “Immigrant Workers in the U.S. Labor Force,” a study analyzing the differences in both the occupations and education levels of immigrant and native-born workers in the American economy and found that even when working the same sectors, immigrants and native-born gravitate towards different jobs. The study provides new insight into the roles of immigrants in the American workforce by providing industry-specific analysis of four low-skilled and four high-skilled sectors of the economy: accommodation, agricultural, construction, food services, healthcare, high tech manufacturing, information technology, and life science sectors. The data shows that immigration adds to diversity of the American workforce. Immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to be of working age and, in many of the sectors analyzed, immigrants fill different roles than native-born workers. Immigrants play especially prominent roles in eight of the 15 fields projected to create the largest number of jobs in the next decade.

The study was conducted by Audrey Singer, Senior Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institution, using data from the U.S. Census 2010 Current Population Survey and the 2010 American Community Survey.

“Our economy is changing faster than ever, and we need to ensure that we have people with all the skills we need to compete in an increasingly global, increasingly specialized, and increasingly complex marketplace,” said New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, co-chair of the Partnership for a New American Economy. “This study makes it abundantly clear that having a strong pool of immigrant talent helps us meet the needs of our economy today and tomorrow, and gives us a strong advantage over our competitor nations.”

“Immigrant workers have been a growing segment of the labor force for the past several decades,” said Audrey Singer. “They are a significant presence in industries that demand high-skilled workers such as information technology and high-tech manufacturing, but also in those that draw low-skilled immigrants such as agriculture, construction and accommodation.”

The principal findings of the study include:

  • Immigrants and native-born workers tend to work in different jobs within both high- and low-skilled industries.
    • In the healthcare industry, immigrants are nearly twice as likely as native-born workers to work as physicians and surgeons (7.7 % and 4.0%, respectively), but also nearly twice as likely as native-born workers to work as home health aides. (19.0% and 10.3%, respectively)
    • In the agricultural sector, immigrant workers are most likely to work as farm workers (60.5% of all immigrants), while native-born workers are most likely to work as ranchers or farmers. (35.5% of all native-born)
    • In construction, immigrant workers are most likely to work as laborers (25.6% of all immigrants) while native-born workers are most likely to work as managers. (14.3% of all native-born)
    • In the food service industry, immigrants are more than twice as likely as native-born workers to work as cooks (31.5% and 14.2%, respectively), but more than 40 percent less likely than native-born workers to work as waiters or waitresses. (15.7% and 24.5%, respectively)
    • In the life sciences industry, immigrant workers are most likely to work as medical scientists (18.5% of all immigrants) while native-born workers are most likely to work as managers. (10.2% of all native-born)
    • In the accommodations sector, immigrant workers are nearly three times as likely as native-born workers to work as maids and housekeeping cleaners. (39.7% and 15.9%, respectively)
  • Immigrants and native-born workers have different levels of education.
    • In the high-skilled sectors studied, immigrants are slightly more educated than native-born workers, including in the information technology industry, where 87.2% of immigrant workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 72.5% of native-born workers.
    • In the low-skilled sectors studied, immigrants are less educated than native-born workers, including in the agriculture industry, where 74.6% of immigrant workers lack a high school diploma, compared with 30.1% of native-born workers.
    • Overall, immigrants are far more likely to lack a high school diploma, with 28.9% of immigrants lacking a high school diploma compared with 7.4% of the native-born, and they are equally likely to have a graduate degree, with 11.0% of immigrants and 10.7% of native born holding graduate degrees.
  • Immigrants play a large and growing role in the U.S. workforce. The percentage of immigrants in the population has increased roughly 160 percent since 1970, but the percentage of immigrants in the workforce has increased more than 200 percent over that time, indicating that immigrants are increasingly likely to be of working age.
  • The flow of immigration parallels changes in the U.S. economy. The percentage of new workers in the labor force who are foreign born has increased during periods of pronounced economic growth and slowed when the economy weakened.
  • Immigrants are heavily represented in 8 of the 15 occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to have the highest absolute job growth between 2010 and 2020.

The study is available here.

About the Partnership for a New American Economy

The Partnership for a New American Economy is a national bipartisan group of more than 400 business leaders and mayors who are making the case that smarter immigration laws would create jobs for Americans today. The Partnership’s members include mayors who represent more than 35 million residents in large and small cities across the country and business leaders who employ more than 4 million people in all sectors of the economy.

About the Brookings Institution (

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC whose mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations that advance three broad goals:

  • Strengthen American democracy;
  • Foster the economic and social welfare, security and opportunity of all Americans and
  • Secure a more open, safe, prosperous and cooperative international system.

Brookings is proud to be consistently ranked as the most influential, most quoted and most trusted think tank.

About NAE

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…