High impact of immigrant workers on civilian labor force, 1990 – 2001 and beyond

Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies prepared in 2002 a study of the impact on new immigration to the civilian labor force, by region, between 1990 and 2001. These figures instantly convey the dependence of the economy on immigrant labor. It is reasonable to infer that over a third of the new immigrants were working illegally. Since 2001, the share of immigrant worker growth has probably shifted more to the illegal category, to 1 out of 2 instead of 1 out of 3.
Below are listed regions and the percentage of civilian labor force growth attributed to immigration. A figure of over 100% indicates that without immigrants, the labor force would have declined.
New England 567%
Mid-Atlantic 369%
Eastern North Central 35%
Western North Central 20%
South Atlantic 45%
Eastern South Central 14%
Western South Central 37%
Rocky Mountains 37%
Pacific 21%
These figures appear to understate the impact of immigrant labor on the labor force, because the impact rose after the early 1990s. According to one analysis, the President’s 2005 Economic Report estimated that “The President’s report points out that “between 1996 and 2003, when total employment grew by 11 million, 58 percent of the net increase was among foreign-born workers,” almost all of whom had arrived since 1995. The immigrant share of employment growth was even higher in particular occupations, amounting in the 1996-2002 period to 86 percent of the 1 million new positions in “precision production, craft, and repair” (which includes mechanics and construction workers) and 62 percent of the 2 million new positions in service occupations (such as janitors, kitchen workers, and grounds workers).
“Moreover, this pattern holds true beyond the traditional immigrant-receiving states of California, New York, Texas, and Florida. The President’s report notes that between 1996 and 2003 immigrants accounted for 84 percent of labor-force growth in eastern North Central states (Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and 47 percent in eastern South Central states (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee).”
The press release from Northeastern is as follows:


CONTACT: Christine Phelan:
617-373-5455
(12-2-02) BOSTON, Mass. –During the decade of the 1990s, foreign immigration reached an all-time historical high in the U.S. when between 13 and 14 million net new foreign immigrants flowed into the country and contributed some 40 percent of the net growth in the resident population over the decade.
As a consequence of both these immigrants’ relative youth and strong labor market attachment, they had an even more substantial – and heretofore unexamined – impact on the growth of the U.S. labor force, impacting the private sector to an even greater degree. New immigrants made up more than half of the growth of the nation’s entire civilian workforce between 1990 and 2001, but their impacts on labor force growth varied markedly by age, gender, region and state. Among males, new immigrants were responsible for 80 percent of the nation’s labor force growth and within the New England and Middle Atlantic divisions where immigrants generated all of the labor force growth between 1990 and 2001.
According to a new analysis of 2000 Census data and 2001 monthly CPS surveys by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies prepared for The Business Roundtable’s Education and the Workforce Task Force in Washington, D.C., neither the dimensions of immigrant participation in the labor force nor the role they played in the 90s boom has been fully appreciated. No longer solely relegated to low-level service and manufacturing jobs, new immigrants increasingly made up large portions of those who worked in retail, trade, and business, high-tech, personal and professional services.
“At no point during the past century did new immigrants ever contribute so substantially to the labor market growth of the country,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern and one of the authors of the study. “New immigrants’ role in contributing to the 1990s job boom in both sheer magnitude and breadth can no longer be ignored.”
Often thought to solely work as laborers, semi-skilled operatives, and in lower-level service jobs, new immigrants were found to be employed in large numbers in every major occupational group although they remain under-represented in management and high level sales positions.
“New immigrants filled a relatively high share of jobs in professional, skilled blue-collar, and production/assembler positions, including many engineering, scientific, and skilled craft positions,” noted Paul Harrington, associate director of the Center. The researchers also found that a very high share of production jobs within the nation’s manufacturing industries was occupied by new and older immigrants, according to Harrington.
New immigrants (those arriving since 1990) were found to be substantially concentrated in wage and salary jobs in the private sector, with nearly nine of every ten employed new immigrants holding these positions.
“New immigrants’ impact on private sector job growth was particularly astounding during the 1990s,” Sum said. “Without their active participation, major shortages in the labor market would have likely cropped up, including many high skilled occupations.”
Private sector firms’ high level of dependence on immigrant male workers was particularly noted by researcher Neeta Fogg, one of the researchers on the project.
“The growing educational gaps between younger women and men, combined with the human capital deficits of older males that limit their labor market attachment, have contributed to the substantially increased reliance on immigrant male workers,” Harrington said.
Despite the associated hurdles with business startups and ownership, the rate of self-employment among all immigrants was only one percentage point lower than among native-born workers. After having spent a decade or more in the U.S., however, foreign-born workers actually become more likely than their native-born counterparts (11.7 percent versus 10.3 percent) to be self-employed.
Additional key findings from the study:
*Male immigrants made up nearly 80 percent of the increase in the nation’s male civilian labor force between 1990 and 2001 while female immigrants contributed 30 percent of the growth in the female labor force over the same time period.
* In the New England and Middle Atlantic divisions, new immigrants made up all of the labor force growth over the 1990s, and 72 percent of the labor force growth in the Pacific region was due to new immigrants. In contrast, only 14 percent of the growth in the East South Central region’s labor force was attributable to new foreign immigration.
* New immigrant workers were much more likely than their native born counterparts to be young (under age 35) and were less well-educated. All of the nation’s labor force growth among workers under 35 was due to new immigrants who prevented the nation’s work force from aging rapidly. New immigrants also contained a disproportionate share of high school dropouts although both groups – native and immigrants – had similar shares of four-year college graduates;
*Contrary to assertions in many sociological studies of immigrant labor markets, the study found that new immigrants were overrepresented in goods producing industries, including construction and manufacturing, industries that employ nearly three of every ten new immigrant workers. New immigrants also were over-represented in retail trade, business/repair services, and personal/entertainment services;
* More than one-third of new immigrant workers were employed in blue-collar occupations, including many skilled craft and production positions in manufacturing and construction, versus only 23 percent of native-born workers. Contrary to popular perceptions, nearly one of every four new immigrant workers also held a professional, management, or technical position in 2000-2001.
“The findings in this report on the growing dependence of American industry on immigrant workers need to stimulate an objective and sustained public policy debate on immigrant labor policies, taking into account both the important and valuable contributions of immigrant workers and the liabilities of some forms of immigrant labor,” Sum said.
The report calls for a more detailed and objective analysis by national and state policymakers of the contributions of immigrant workers to U.S. employment growth and their impacts on the economic well-being of native-born American workers. Its authors hope it compels legislators and state governments to strengthen the educational and training systems to support the assimilation of these immigrants into American society and culture while also acknowledging the needs of those who have been displaced by their arrival.
The report was commissioned by the Business Roundtable as part of its ongoing efforts to examine the impacts of the workforce and the economy. For a copy of the full report, please visit our web site: http://www.nupr.neu.edu or call 617-373-5455.

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