Unskilled but Indispensable: Why the U.S Needs Unskilled Immigrants

A big part of the problem with the current wave of immigrants coming to the U.S is the fact that they are largely unskilled and non-English speaking. According to a report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the type of immigration reform that the U.S needs must include an end to unskilled immigration.

But who are these unskilled immigrants and why are they so unwelcome? According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) definition, an unskilled worker refers to a person performing unskilled labor requiring less than two years of specialized training or experience to perform labor for which qualified workers are not available in the United States.

By this definition, there actually is a need for such workers as they fill roles that U.S. workers do not fill.

farm workers 2

Since immigrants self select, they tend to be younger, healthier, stronger and male. Thus they are well suited for agricultural jobs and those jobs requiring a significant degree of manual labor, which many Americans refuse or are unable to do. An often-cited counter-argument is that the real obstacle is not the absence of native-born workers but that they would have to be paid higher wages.

The thing is that we don’t really care about our “nominal” wages but rather, our “real” wages: the purchasing power of that wage. If we force employers to raise wages for these unskilled jobs so that they are more attractive to U.S. workers, all we are doing (assuming inelastic demand) is ensuring that the increased costs of production are transferred to the consumer in the form of price increases. Suddenly, that “higher” wage has not made anyone better off as we now pay more for the same good.

Immigrants are not in competition with the native born. The demographics of the immigrant and native-born population complement one another.  Firstly, the median age of U.S residents is 37 while the median age at arrival for immigrants is about 22 years. Thus, immigrants tend to soften the blow from the rapidly aging U.S population.

Secondly, the educational distributions of U.S and immigrant workers are also complementary, with immigrants mostly at the high and low ends of the education distribution where there are fewer U.S- born workers.

There are not a finite number of jobs but even if that were the case, there is little overlap in the types of jobs held by unskilled immigrants and unskilled Americans. While the top occupation for the former is building, grounds cleaning and maintenance, that of the latter is transportation and material moving.

In the few areas where there is overlap, the arrival of unskilled immigrants creates opportunities for upward mobility so that the native born can take up higher paying, often-supervisory jobs or those requiring English language skills for interacting with customers.

Despite the nonnegative outcomes from unskilled immigration, public perception remains unchanged because the term “unskilled” carries a negative connotation, suggesting that they are irrelevant, contributing little or nothing to the economy. This is in contrast to high skilled workers with advanced degrees whose contributions can be directly observed as they tend to be more innovative, filing new patents and more entrepreneurial.

As beneficial as high skilled workers are for the U.S economy, they really need the services of unskilled workers in order to properly specialize in what they do best.  Imagine a 35-year-old American mother of three who works 70-hour weeks as an investment-banking analyst. Also imagine that her husband is a medical doctor working similar hours and that 96% of the working population is involved in the same type of high skilled occupation while the remaining 4% is voluntarily unemployed.

Who runs the day care facilities or babysits the kids while the parents are out working? Who are the drivers for the school bus and public transport systems? Who are the janitors at the offices they work at or at the children’s schools? Who prepares the lunch that they buy? Who are the street sweepers?

In essence, people are the ultimate resource and should be allowed to work wherever their work has the most value. As all workers, skilled and unskilled, efficiently perform their work, the economy as a whole stands to benefit.