The Corner

Immigrant Skills Gap Grows

The Washington Post hyped at the top of their front page a Brookings Institution report that “documents dramatic shift in immigrant workforce’s skill level”. Uh, no.

What the report said, correctly, is that the percentage of immigrants who lack a high-school degree has been slowly declining, while the percentage with a college degree has been slowly climbing. As my colleague Steven Camarota notes, this has been going on for some time.

But what matters in policymaking is not the absolute level of educational attainment, but educational attainment relative to natives. And there, the headline would be quite different, more like “Dramatic gap opens between natives and immigrants”. While the proportion of dropouts has been declining among both natives and immigrants, it’s declined faster among natives, resulting in a large and growing gap, as this figure, which we published 10 years ago shows:


(This tracks recent (past 10 years) immigrants, which shows the selection effects of immigration policy as such, as opposed to education that might have been acquired decades after arrival.) In the intervening decade, this gap has increased further, to 23 points.

The opposite is true for college grads; in 1970, recent immigrants were nearly 50 percent more likely to have at least a college degree than the native-born; now the figure is about the same.

So, the gap at the low-end of the education spectrum has widened while the advantage immigrants enjoyed in the past at the high end has entirely disappeared.

And even at the high end, immigrants serve as cheap labor. Tara Bahrampour, the Post reporter, ended her story with a telling quote:

Some employers may say they prefer immigrants to native-born workers. When Samir Kumar needs to hire employees for his Northern Virginia-based IT business, he often looks overseas. Not only do workers from India and Ukraine have the required training, but their expectations are lower, he said.

“They actually don’t demand a very high amount of salary, and the expectations are kind of grounded and they don’t jump around so much” between companies, said the 39-year-old Ashburn resident, an immigrant from India. U.S.-born technology and business analysts are hard to find and hard to retain, he said, while immigrants with the same skills and education “are much easier to manage.”

Hmmm — “don’t demand a very high amount of salary,” “don’t jump around so much,” “much easier to manage”. Employers will always want cheap, docile labor, whatever the industry, and if Americans aren’t cheap enough or obedient enough, then they’ll demand Congress supply them with foreigners who are. The question is why we would agree to that.


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