America’s 21st century job market requires high-tech skills. However, nearly half the new jobs will need only a high school diploma. These share one more thing in common: many of them will likely be taken by low-skilled immigrants willing to do work that many Americans won’t. The vital economic role played by immigrants who don’t have the education, training or skills that the Trump administration say should be a pre-requisite is lost in the immigration debate in Washington. Economists say that especially with unemployment at a 17-year low and the growth of the workforce slowing, immigrants are vital to the economy.
Sixty-three percent of current American jobs — and 46 percent of jobs expected to be created between 2016 and 2026 — require no more than a high school degree, according to the Labor Department. The new positions include low-paying jobs that most native-born Americans are loath to pursue — an estimated 778,000 personal-care aides (median pay in 2016: $21,920), 580,000 food-service workers ($19,400), 431,000 home-health aides ($22,600).
Foreign-born workers — about 17 percent of the overall workforce — account for 52 percent of America’s maids, 47 percent of roofers and 40 percent of construction laborers and laundry and dry-cleaning workers. Low-skilled immigrants harvest sweet potatoes in fields in North Carolina. They serve Alzheimer patients in nursing homes. They also vacuum offices. These workers are waiters, cooks and maids at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
The Trump administration wants to reduce the number of foreigners who can enter the United States. They also want to establish a merit system for those who do. They argue that restrictions on immigration would protect Americans from potential criminals and low-skilled immigrants. According to them, they drive down wages for everyone.
Many native-born Americans tend to avoid low-paying, physically demanding work, even when good jobs are scarce
Take as an example what happened in North Carolina in 2011. Nearly 500,000 North Carolinians were jobless. The state’s farms needed 6,500 workers to plant and harvest cucumbers, sweet potatoes and tobacco. Only 268 native-born unemployed North Carolinians sought the farm jobs (which paid $9.70 an hour). Of those, 245 were hired. Only 163 showed up on the first day. And just seven kept at the job until the growing season had ended.
Instead of competing with native-born workers, immigrants complement them and make them more productive. Patricia Cortes of Boston University and Jose Tessada of Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University found that an increase in immigrant nannies and housekeepers from 1980 -2000 drove down the price of household services. This allowed American-born women to work longer hours on the job because they had less work to do at home.
The Pew Research Center last year reported that the U.S. workforce will grow only if immigrants replace retiring baby boomers. The U.S. working-age (25-64) population would rise from 173 million in 2015 to 183 million in 2035 with immigrants. Without them, it would shrink to 166 million.