Ready to Work: Understanding Immigrant Skills in the United States to Build a Competitive Labor Force

January 24, 2018

By: Rob Paral, Nonresident Fellow, Global Cities

Executive Summary

Investing in human capital—workers’ education and skills—is key to building a productive workforce, supporting innovation, and fostering economic growth. As the United States strives to build a workforce that will maintain its economic competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace, the conversation about human capital must increasingly consider the unique characteristics of foreign-born workers, who currently represent one in every six workers.

This report details those unique attributes, including their sociodemographic characteristics, geographic distribution, and current education levels and training. To provide context, the analysis compares immigrant workers to categories of native-born workers.

The purpose of this analysis is to inform the labor field’s broader conversations about policies and programs to maximize foreign-born workers’ contributions to the US workforce. There are several core takeaways from this research:

  • Immigrants are significant contributors to the US 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.
  • Foreign-born 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 most 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 US economy’s future vitality depends on its ability to maximize the skills and talents of all workers—foreign born and native born alike.


Generous support for this report was provided by the Lumina Foundation.

Ready to Work: Understanding Immigrant Skills in the United States to Build a Competitive Labor Force

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