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Immigrant Workers Are More Evenly Dispersed Across the Skills Spectrum than Widely Recognized, New MPI Analysis Finds
Press Release
Monday, September 20, 2010

Immigrant Workers Are More Evenly Dispersed Across the Skills Spectrum than Widely Recognized, New MPI Analysis Finds

Fastest Growth in Immigrant Employment Over Last Decade Has Occurred in Middle-Skilled Jobs

WASHINGTON — It has been conventional wisdom that the immigrant workforce is shaped like an hourglass—wide at the top and the bottom but narrow in the middle. In reality, immigrants are more evenly dispersed across the skills spectrum than has been widely recognized, according to an analysis issued Monday by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

The report, Still an Hourglass? Immigrant Workers in Middle-Skilled Jobs, demonstrates that the fastest growth in immigrant employment since 2000 has occurred in middle-skilled jobs—jobs that require more than a high school but less than a four-year college degree and that typically pay a family-sustaining wage ($30,000 per worker annually).

The number of immigrants in middle-skilled jobs grew by 50 percent between 2000 and 2006—with the overall distribution of the immigrant and native workforces resembling one another much more closely than has been popularly believed. Pre-recession, 25 percent of native workers and 20 percent of immigrants were employed in high-skilled jobs (requiring a bachelor’s degree or more); 29 percent of natives and 24 percent of immigrant workers in middle-skilled occupations; and 46 percent of natives and 56 percent of immigrants in low-skilled jobs (requiring high school or less education).

The study, which examines employment in the U.S. workforce and in four key sectors (IT, health care, construction and hospitality), finds that employment growth for immigrants far outpaced native growth rates between 1990 and 2006 in the total economy and the four industries surveyed. Between 2000 and 2006, immigrants accounted for more than half of all net job growth (5.5 million of 10 million jobs). With the onset of the recession, though, immigrant workers experienced slower job growth or a steeper decline than natives in all four sectors.

The report, done under a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, uses a sophisticated new method of analysis that permits deeper examination of how immigrant workers fare by economic sector, occupation, the skill level of their jobs and by their educational attainment and English proficiency.

Among the top findings:

  • By 2006, in three of the four sectors surveyed (all but construction), the percentage of immigrant workers earning family-sustaining wages equaled or exceeded the share for native workers. Immigrants earned more in part because they were better educated than natives in the health care and IT sectors. Their wages and educational attainment were roughly equivalent in hospitality.
  • Immigrants have been able to advance into middle-skilled jobs that pay family-sustaining wages without four-year college degrees.
  • Because of striking gender disparities across the four sectors, the recession has taken a far heavier toll on immigrant men, who are much more heavily represented in the construction and IT sectors while women dominate the growing health care industry
  • Steep job losses for immigrant workers in construction (as much as 30 percent in some occupations) led to a dramatic fall in the number of middle-skilled jobs available to immigrants with comparatively low educational attainment and limited English skills.
    “Middle-skilled jobs represent important pathways for immigrant mobility. Fully 60 percent of immigrants in middle-skilled jobs earned family-sustaining wages before the recession’s onset compared to 28 percent of those in low-skilled jobs,” said MPI Senior Vice President Michael Fix, a report co-author. “But with the decimation of construction, the prospects for immigrants with little formal education and limited English skills have weakened significantly.”

Said co-author Randy Capps, an MPI senior policy analyst: “These findings raise a number of policy concerns, among them the capacity of work-preparing institutions to help move workers now in low-skilled jobs into middle-skilled occupations that pay family-sustaining wages—particularly in an era of fiscal constraints. The challenges are particularly acute with respect to immigrant workers who may have limited English proficiency and low education and literacy levels.”

Still an Hourglass? Immigrant Workers in Middle-Skilled Jobs is available as a full-length report, complete with in-depth sectoral findings and comprehensive methodology, as well as in a briefer format.

The Report in Brief is available here
The full report can be found here.


The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC 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.