Posted on June 16, 2011 9:38 AM
The Shifting Skill Levels of Immigrants to the U.S.
The Brookings Institution has issued a report depicting an increase from 1994 to 2010 in the percentage of immigrants to the U.S. who are considered highly skilled (Bachelor's degree or higher). Some metropolitan areas draw a high proportion of these workers, according to Brookings analysis of American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the report makes a case that these immigrants are enhancing the nation's economic competitiveness, even as other areas attract lower-skilled immigrants who may have more trouble adapting to the labor market.
Thirty percent of working-age immigrants nationwide are highly skilled, according to the report, and since 2007 the percentage of highly skilled immigrants has exceeded lower-skilled ones. While this trend seems to contradict the view that immigration has only negative economic effects, the reality defies simple explanations; for example, low-skill immigrants are important to the economy in some areas (e.g., where agriculture is significant), while the economic effects of high-skill immigrants are not uniformly positive (e.g., they may increase the competition for high-paying jobs).
Eight of the ten metropolitan areas with the lowest skill levels among immigrants are in the west or southwest. The high-skill destinations include areas that Brookings refers to as “cultural, knowledge, and technology centers,” many of which are on one of the coasts and/or have universities that attract and often retain foreign students. The skill set of immigrants to metropolitan Chicago is considered "balanced" in the report, which highlights five findings in particular:
- The share of working-age immigrants with a bachelor’s degree has risen considerably since 1980, and now exceeds the share without a high school diploma.
- Forty-four of the 100 largest metropolitan areas are high-skill destinations where college-educated immigrants outnumber ones without high school diplomas by at least 25 percent.
- Immigrants’ skill levels vary by metropolitan area due to historical settlement patterns and economic structures.
- Metro areas with the fastest-growing immigrant populations are attracting immigrants with markedly lower educational attainment than those settling elsewhere.
- Compared with their U.S.-born counterparts, low-skilled immigrants have higher rates of employment and lower rates of household poverty, but also have lower individual earnings, in all types of metro areas.
In further analyzing metropolitan areas relative to their immigrant populations, Brookings classifies metropolitan Chicago as a "Major Continuous Gateway," a category that includes metropolitan Boston, New York, and San Francisco – "quintessential immigrant destinations, having large and sustained immigrant populations over the course of the 20th century." These four regions are home to about 25 percent of all immigrants in the U.S., though they increasingly are just stopping points before immigrants move elsewhere. Other categories include "Emerging Gateways" such as Atlanta, Austin, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Phoenix -- where immigrant populations have grown faster than the national rate from 1970 to 2000 -- while Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis are considered "Former Gateways" that have attracted fewer immigrants than the national average since the 1930s.
The report touches on factors that have contributed to these shifts, including the availability of temporary H-1B visas that require a college degree and the increase of international students in the U.S. Brookings points out that the data and analysis raise many questions, such as how local and state governments can address the human capital challenges and opportunities presented by immigration. "Professional and high-tech industrial growth may create demand not only for high-skill immigrants," the report states, "but also for cheap, low-skill immigrant labor in construction and service-oriented work, ultimately leading to a convergence in skill ratios across destinations over time and the array of service needs that come with that mix."
For more on how our region is addressing these and other workforce issues, see the Human Capital chapter of GO TO 2040. Also see the Regional Snapshot report on "Latinos in Our Region."