Immigrants in the Labor Force

July 23, 2010

People born in other countries are a growing presence in the U.S. labor force. In 2009, more than 1 in 7 people in the U.S. labor force were born elsewhere; 15 years earlier, only 1 in 10 was foreign born. About 40 percent of the foreign-born labor force in 2009 was from Mexico and Central America, and more than 25 percent was from Asia.

Today CBO released an update to its November 2005 report on the role of immigrants in the U.S. labor market. That earlier report included data through 2004; this update, the first of several on various aspects of immigration, incorporates data through 2009 from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Surveys. The update includes various tables showing statistics on the number of foreign-born workers, the countries from which they have come, their educational attainment, the types of jobs they hold, and their earnings.

Some highlights include:

  • People born in other countries represent a substantial and growing segment of the U.S. labor force—that is, people with a job or looking for one. In 2009, 24 million members of the labor force were foreign born, up from 21 million in 2004. However, the growth of the foreign-born labor force was much slower between 2004 and 2009 than between 1994 and 2004.
  • In 2009, over half of the foreign-born workers from Mexico and Central America did not have a high school diploma or GED credential, as compared with just 6 percent of native-born workers. Yet nearly half of the foreign-born workers from places other than Mexico and Central America had at least a bachelor’s degree, as compared with 35 percent of native-born workers.
  • Over time, participants in the U.S. labor force from Mexico and Central America have become more educated. In 2009, they had completed an average of 9.8 years of schooling—up from 9.5 years in 2004; 55 percent lacked a high school diploma or GED credential—down from 59 percent in 2004; and among 16- to 24-year-olds, 50 percent were not in school and were not high school graduates—down from 60 percent in 2004. Nevertheless, those born in Mexico and Central America constitute an increasingly large share of the least educated portions of the labor force.
  • To a considerable extent, educational attainment determines the role of foreign-born workers in the labor market. In 2009, 70 percent of workers born in Mexico and Central America were employed in occupations that have minimal educational requirements, such as construction laborer and dishwasher; only 23 percent of native-born workers held such jobs.
  • Foreign-born workers who came to the United States from places other than Mexico and Central America were employed in a much broader range of occupations. Nevertheless, they were more than twice as likely as native-born workers to be in fields such as computer and mathematical sciences, which generally require at least a college education. Their average weekly earnings were similar to those of native-born men and women.
  • On average, the weekly earnings of men from Mexico and Central America who worked full time were just over half those of native-born men; women from Mexico and Central America earned about three-fifths of the average weekly earnings of native-born women.

This report was prepared by Nabeel Alsalam of CBO’s Health and Human Resources Division.