Why is the Average Skill Level of the U.S. Workforce So Low?

by Reihan Salam

Earlier this week, David Frum addressed the role of immigration policy in the deskilling of the American workforce. I’ve written on immigration and the OECD Survey on Adult Skills in the past, but Frum offers a much richer comparative picture. He makes the following observations, among others:

(a) While only 6 percent of working-age native-born Americans do not have a high school diploma, the share of working-age immigrants without a high school diploma is over 25 percent. And though immigrants represent 16 percent of the U.S. workforce, they represent 44 percent of workers without a high school diploma.

(b) Though New Zealand, Australia, and Canada attract large numbers of migrants, their immigration regimes are designed so that new arrivals are more educated and more skilled than the native-born population.

(c) Like the U.S., Sweden welcomes a non-trivial number of less-skilled immigrants, yet it also provides them with generous social services, unlike the United States, in an effort to “mitigate the deskilling effects of unskilled immigration.

(d) The children of less-skilled immigrants do not fare notably well, for a number of reasons. (We’ve discussed the phenomenon of “segmented assimilation” in this space.) Frum observes that progress from one generation to the next is slow in the best case and non-existent in the worst, and that the low rate of intergenerational upward mobility stems in part from the rising prevalence of the single-parent family pattern among the children and grandchildren of less-skilled immigrants. 

Frum’s piece will make many readers uncomfortable, but it raises important truths, the most important of which is that the immigration debate is not a binary question of whether or not we ought to welcome immigrants. It is about which immigrants we ought to welcome, and in what numbers. I also wrote a column on immigration in this week that makes a complementary point: if we truly care about the less-skilled immigrants who currently live and work in the U.S., and if we’re interested in the well-being of their children, we ought to limit future less-skilled immigration while increasing skilled immigration. The former will reduce the competition facing less-skilled immigrant workers; the latter will tend to increase demand for their services while also strengthening our ability to finance programs that benefit the native and the immigrant poor.