Report: Immigrants a Key Cohort of US Workers, But Skills Not Maximized

January 24, 2018

Immigrants are a significant portion of the U.S. workforce, making up one in every six workers, and their demographic and economic characteristics make them a vital part of the future labor force, according to a new analysis from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Only one in three workers – both immigrant and native-born – is in a job where their education matches job needs. Savvy investments in education and training are needed to calibrate workers’ skills against the demands of future jobs and ensure the United States’ continued competitiveness in the global marketplace.

The report, “Ready to Work: Understanding Immigrant Skills in the United States to Build a Competitive Labor Force,” examines the skill and education levels of the American workforce and compares the unique attributes of immigrants and their native-born peers to inform future policies and programs designed to improve workforce development. The report includes sociodemographic indicators, geographic distribution and levels of education and training. It also raises pressing questions that need to be addressed in order to maximize the contributions of foreign-born workers.

“It’s important to accurately understand the current skills, training and education of American workers—both immigrant and native-born—to know how and where to invest additional resources,” said Rob Paral, author of the study and Nonresident Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Any changes to federal immigration policy must take into consideration the unique and significant contributions made by immigrants to the U.S. workforce.”

The U.S. economy is constantly evolving, and the skills and education levels that once served workers are in a state of flux as new industries, technologies, methods and markets develop. An analysis of how immigrants are currently positioned to contribute to the U.S. workforce is key to informing future policies and efforts to best activate this population.

The analysis generated several key findings:

  • Immigrants are significant contributors to the U.S. labor force. They currently represent 17 percent of workers. Many immigrants are in their prime working years, in contrast to an aging native-born workforce.
  • Significant portions of immigrants and the native-born are currently working in jobs for which they are educationally overqualified.  But when immigrants are educationally overqualified, they earn less than their native-born peers with similar skills in similar jobs.
  • Immigrant workers may benefit from greater access to additional education and training, particularly professional licenses and certificates. Post-secondary education and workforce development institutions will be more effective in reaching these workers with programs that are responsive to immigrant workers’ unique characteristics.
  • Findings should be evaluated against the evolving landscape of immigration policy, demographic change, and population shifts to most effectively inform future programs and investments. The U.S. economy’s future vitality depends on its ability to maximize the skills and talents of all workers – immigrant and native-born alike.


To read and download the full report, please click here.