Immigrant Workers Are Important to Filling Growing Occupations

Luis Arce Mota, the chef and co-owner of La Contenta, checks the inventory of his restaurant, February 16, 2017, in New York.

President Donald Trump thinks of himself as a savvy businessman who knows what it takes to jump-start economic growth to make America great again. But what he doesn’t seem to realize is the extent to which economic growth is tied to immigrants, who start businesses at high rates, create jobs, and revitalize communities by increasing housing values and generating tax revenue that funds public services such as schools and emergency services. Instead, Trump continues to demonize immigrants, a major segment of the nation’s workforce. According to the Center for Migration Studies of New York’s calculations based on data from the American Community Survey, or ACS, immigrants made up more than one in six workers in the United States—17 percent—in 2014. Five percent of all U.S. workers were unauthorized.

Every two years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, produces estimates of occupations expected to grow the most over the next 10 years. The most recent estimates project growth from 2014 to 2024. Understanding where there is growing demand for workers is essential to predicting where there is potential for shortages to arise and ensuring that they are addressed.

Numerous studies have documented that immigrants are needed to replace the large number of retiring Baby Boomers and that the future growth of the U.S. workforce will come from immigrants and their children. This need will be felt more immediately in occupations that currently employ many older workers, such as janitorial and truck driving work. To put it plainly, the United States will need foreign-born workers and their children to fill jobs such as these once current workers retire, especially those jobs that are expected to grow the most over the next decade. With the United States nearing a demographic crossroads, immigrants will be even more important to economic growth.

ACS data show that immigrants make up an outsized share of workers in 10 of the 30 occupations expected to add the most jobs by 2024. (see Table 1) Just as immigrants work across all sectors of the U.S. economy, the occupations on this list vary widely in skills and responsibilities and range from maids to construction workers, from software developers to nursing assistants. The occupations listed below might not be obvious candidates for growing sectors, but given their size, even modest percentage growth will net tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of new jobs. As the table below shows, immigrants are already several million strong in these jobs.

The growing demand for workers is especially notable in heavily immigrant caregiver occupations—personal care aides, nursing assistants, and home health aides. These are three of the six occupations forecasted to see the most growth over the next decade, tied to the needs of serving the aging Baby Boomer population. From 2014 to 2024, the BLS projects that an additional 458,000 personal care aides, 348,400 home health aides, and 262,000 nursing assistants will be added to the U.S. workforce, a total of nearly 1.1 million jobs. In 2014, approximately one-quarter of workers in these occupations were born outside the United States. Demand for workers to fill these roles will outpace supply.

Some other noteworthy occupations from the list of the 30 largest-growing occupations include: cooks, construction laborers, janitors and other cleaners, software developers, computer systems analysts, and maids and housekeeping cleaners. Each of these jobs is expected to add more than 100,000 jobs by 2024, and they already have larger shares of immigrants than the national average.

Another dimension of this growth is not just how many total immigrants work in each of these jobs but also how many of these immigrants are unauthorized. Unauthorized immigrants make up a large share of several of these large growth occupations, including: 24 percent of maids and housekeeping cleaners, 22 percent of construction laborers, and 18 percent of cooks. The unauthorized immigrants working in these occupations are crucial to everyday life in the United States, and removing them together with the rest of the unauthorized workforce would be a massive detriment to the U.S. economy, reducing the gross domestic product, or GDP, by $4.7 trillion over 10 years.

By 2024, the BLS estimates that the United States will need to fill another nearly 10 million jobs—a serious task, especially in the growing occupations highlighted above. Without these workers, many of whom are immigrants, our homes will go unbuilt, our smart phones won’t be quite as smart, and our senior citizens will go without proper care. The public recognizes that immigrants help this country, and it is time that the federal government does as well. Recognizing the growing need for more workers, policymakers need to discuss how the government could better welcome immigrants to the United States, not reduce their opportunities to move here. Instead of entertaining mass deportation policies, let’s talk about a pathway to legal status and citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already working in this country. In addition to staving off worker shortages, the nation would benefit from an additional $1.2 trillion in GDP and 145,000 new jobs each year.

Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress. She thanks the Center for Migration Studies of New York for providing access to its data and Phil Wolgin for valuable feedback on drafts of this column.