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As the economy sputters along with some signs of improvement, people often point to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’s list of fastest-growing occupations as the bright spots in the labor market. These occupations—in nursing, home health care, and food service—are low-skilled, low-pay jobs, but at least they are market segments that present opportunity.
Much of that opportunity, it turns out, is being seized by immigrants. That’s one finding of an interesting study published Thursday by demographer Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution in Washington. Singer’s study is noteworthy because it analyzes how immigrants and native-born Americans working in the same job sector stack up against one another and gives a sharper picture of where immigrants tend to cluster in the labor market. Using 2010 BLS data, she looked at differences in both the occupations and education levels of immigrant and native-born workers in eight sectors: health care, agriculture, construction, food service, hospitality, life sciences, information technology, and high-tech manufacturing. (The study did not include data on the workers’ legal status.)
Nearly a quarter of the workforce in the three fastest-growing job categories—home health aides, nursing aides, and personal-care aides—are immigrants. As the native-born population ages, it’s likely that immigrants will increasingly fill these jobs. “It’s an indication of what the future might look like,” Singer says. Immigrants have made inroads in some high-skilled jobs too. For example, in health care, immigrants are now nearly twice as likely as native-born workers to work as physicians and surgeons. (They are also twice as likely to work in the lowest-paying sectors of the health-care field). Immigrants are also just as likely to have graduate degrees as native-born workers. Overall, the top job categories for immigrants—janitors, housekeepers, and food-service workers—continue to feature very low-skilled labor.
Even when working in the same sectors, it’s interesting to see how immigrants and native-born laborers gravitate toward different jobs. For example, in food service, a sector with a large immigrant workforce, immigrants are more than twice as likely as native-born workers to work as cooks and food preparers (31.5% and 14.2%, respectively), but less likely than native-born workers to work as waiters or waitresses (15.7% and 24.5%, respectively). The pay in each category is about the same.
One reason for this is obvious: language. As University of California, San Diego economist Giovanni Peri has written, some immigrants in a given industry will concentrate in job categories that require less English-language skill, whereas native-born workers will tend to work in front-of-the-house jobs that emphasize customer service.
Because the data only look at a snapshot of the economy in a single year—2010—Singer warns that it can’t be used to make conclusions as to whether immigrants are pushing Americans out of certain job categories, or whether Americans are moving out of these jobs because they can find more appealing work elsewhere. I tackled this subject a few months ago in my cover story about Alabama’s harsh immigrant law, “Why Americans Won’t do Dirty Jobs.” Even in Alabama’s slackening economy, native-born Americans did not rush to fill jobs that were vacated by immigrants after the law went into effect.