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Growing Role of Immigrant-Origin Workers Long Overlooked in Discussions about Future of Work in U.S.; New MPI Report Seeks to Fill Research Gap
Press Release
Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Growing Role of Immigrant-Origin Workers Long Overlooked in Discussions about Future of Work in U.S.; New MPI Report Seeks to Fill Research Gap

WASHINGTON — Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting job dislocation unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, economists and futurists predicted extensive changes to the future of work in the United States. While the focus has been chiefly on the transformations that automation and off-shoring will bring, and a related discussion about the quality of future jobs, the research has been largely silent on another important force shaping the U.S. labor market: Immigration.

Yet immigrant-origin workers (immigrants and their U.S.-born children) have been the overwhelming driver of U.S. workforce growth in recent years: they presently account for 28 percent of all U.S. workers, up from 25 percent in 2010 and about 20 percent in 2000. Projections suggest they will drive all labor growth through 2035.

“Understanding how the changing mix of jobs in the U.S. economy is likely to affect this key segment of workers will be vital for shaping workforce development and immigration policies in the years ahead,” Migration Policy Institute (MPI) researchers write in a new report.

The report, Navigating the Future of Work: The Role of Immigrant-Origin Workers in the Changing U.S. Economy, seeks to fill the research gap. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as occupation-specific projections for automation and off-shoring, the researchers examine the impacts long-term economic trends might have on the future of work for immigrant-origin and third/higher-generation workers (U.S.-born workers with U.S.-born parents).

Notwithstanding an economic future made more uncertain by the COVID-19 fallout, the report finds that immigrant-origin workers have roughly the same prospects for future job growth and decline as other U.S. workers. In 2018, 22 percent of immigrant-origin workers held jobs in high-growth job sectors, as compared to 24 percent of third/higher generation workers. On the other hand, 26 percent of immigrant-origin workers were in occupations projected to decline, compared to 29 percent of third/higher-generation workers.

The picture is not even by race and ethnicity, the report finds. Both immigrant-origin and third/higher-generation Latinos are less likely than workers in other major racial or ethnic groups to hold jobs of the future and more likely to hold jobs susceptible to decline given automation and off-shoring.

The picture is brighter for other workers. Due at least in part to their high average educational attainment, Black immigrant-origin workers were over-represented in jobs of the future in 2018, particularly in health care and health-care support. And White and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers, particularly those of immigrant origins, are well positioned for jobs of the future, holding these at higher rates and declining jobs at lower rates in 2018 than immigrant-origin workers overall.

Among the report’s other findings:

  • The jobs of the future will be primarily high-skilled or middle-skilled, with particular concentration in health care, education, management and social services sectors.
  • Low-skilled jobs are projected to be more susceptible to automation, although the timing and scale of this is uncertain. Nonetheless, certain low-skilled jobs such as food preparation and service, home care/health aides, cooks and janitors are projected to grow (at least once the pandemic subsides).
  • Evidence does not suggest a significant increase in informal, contract or contingent work. The majority of U.S. workers, including immigrant-origin workers, are employed in long-term, formal arrangements. Nonetheless, immigrant-origin workers are more likely to be misclassified as contractors and may be more likely to work in the informal economy.

The researchers note the importance of education and workforce development, including in areas such as digital competency, to address the changing labor trends and build career resilience. “Many workers in declining jobs may find that it takes substantial effort through additional education, training and/or work experience to attain the skills necessary to secure jobs of the future,” write analysts Julia Gelatt, Jeanne Batalova and Randy Capps.

They also suggest careful monitoring of changing labor market trends will be important in deciding immigration admission policies.

“In the short term, as the country endures the economic contraction brought on by the pandemic, there may be limited appetite for bringing new foreign-born workers to the United States. But as the economy recovers, training for immigrant-origin and other U.S. workers and policies that select the immigrants with the skills to fill the jobs of the future will be vital to the country’s economic vitality,” the report concludes. 

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/future-work-immigrant-origin-workers-us-economy.

The report is one in a series from MPI’s Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy initiative. At a time when U.S. immigration realities are changing rapidly, this multiyear initiative is generating a big-picture, evidence-driven vision of the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. To keep up with the latest developments in the Rethinking initiative, sign up for updates here.


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.