Born Elsewhere, Working Here

For many Americans, the phrase “foreign-born worker” likely conjures an image of a recently arrived guy with a mustache and a thick accent, toiling away in a restaurant kitchen. The reality is more complicated, as a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes clear. And this reality increasingly matters, as immigrants (whether in the U.S. legally or not) come to constitute a growing share of the workforce.

As of last year, foreign-born workers accounted for 15.7 percent of the civilian labor force age 16 and older, up from 15.3 percent in 2006. The report notes a number of respects in which, taken as a group, foreign-born workers differ from their U.S.-born counterparts. They skew more male, for one thing, as 60.3 percent are men, vs. 52.4 percent of native-born workers. They also skew younger: 76.4 percent fall into the broad 25-54 age bracket, vs. 66.6 percent of native-born workers.

The stereotype of foreign-born workers as Hispanics is only half right. Hispanics do indeed rank as the largest ethnic group among foreign-born workers, but they comprise just 50 percent of the total. Asians account for 21.9 percent of the foreign-born workforce.

In a breakdown by education among workers age 25 and older, the foreign-born are much more likely than the native-born to have less than a high school diploma (27.4 percent vs. 6 percent). But nearly equal proportions of foreign-born and native-born workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher (31.1 percent vs. 34.2 percent).

The report also offers detail on the occupational sectors filled by foreign-born workers. The category “management, professional and related occupations” accounts for the largest chunk (27.2 percent), followed by the catch-all “service occupations” (22.8 percent). Median weekly earnings last year for foreign-born full-time wage and salary workers were $554, considerably lower than the $722 for native-born workers. The disparity was sharper among men (foreign-born, $585; native-born, $809) than among women (foreign-born, $509; native-borne, $627).