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“Immigrant Workers in the U.S. Labor Force” from the Brookings Institution and the Partnership for a New American Economy analyzes the differences in vocation and education levels of immigrant and native-born workers in the American economy. The study provides new insight into the roles of immigrant workers, by providing sector-specific analysis of four low-skilled and four high-skilled parts of the economy. 


The principal findings of the study include:

  • Immigrants and native-born workers tend to work in different jobs within both high- and low-skilled industries.
      • In the healthcare industry, immigrants are nearly twice as likely as native-born workers to work as physicians and surgeons (7.7% and 4.0%, respectively), but also nearly twice as likely as native-born workers to work as home health aides. (19.0% and 10.3%, respectively)

      • In the agricultural sector, immigrant workers are most likely to work as farm workers (60.5% of all immigrants), while native-born workers are most likely to work as ranchers or farmers. (35.5% of all native-born)

      • In construction, immigrant workers are most likely to work as laborers (25.6% of all immigrants) while native-born workers are most likely to work as managers. (14.3% of all native-born)

      • In the food service industry, immigrants are more than twice as likely as native-born workers to work as cooks (31.5% and 14.2%, respectively), but more than 40 percent less likely than native-born workers to work as waiters or waitresses. (15.7% and 24.5%, respectively)

      • In the life sciences industry, immigrant workers are most likely to work as medical scientists (18.5% of all immigrants) while native-born workers are most likely to work as managers. (10.2% of all native-born)

    • In the accommodations sector, immigrant workers are nearly three times as likely as native-born workers to work as maids and housekeeping cleaners. (39.7% and 15.9%, respectively)
  • Immigrants and native-born workers have different levels of education.
    • In the high-skilled sectors, immigrants are slightly more educated than native-born workers, including in the information technology industry, where 87.2% of immigrant workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 72.5% of native-born workers.
    • In the low-skilled sectors, immigrants are less educated than native-born workers, including in the agriculture industry, where 74.6% of immigrant workers lack a high school diploma, compared with 30.1% of native-born workers.
  • Overall, immigrants are far more likely to lack a high school diploma, with 28.9% of immigrants lacking a high school diploma compared with 7.4% of the native-born, and they are equally likely to have a graduate degree, with 11.0% of immigrants and 10.7% of native born holding graduate degrees.


  • Immigrants play a large and growing role in the U.S. workforce. The percentage of immigrants in the population has increased roughly 160 percent since 1970, but the percentage of immigrants in the workforce has increased more than 200 percent over that time, indicating that immigrants are increasingly likely to be of working age. 

  • The flow of immigration parallels changes in the U.S. economy. The percentage of new workers in the labor force who are foreign born has increased during periods of pronounced economic growth and slowed when the economy weakened. 

  • Immigrants are heavily represented in 8 of the 15 occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to have the highest absolute job growth between 2010 and 2020.


View a slideshow of the findings

Read the press release announcing the study (PDF)

Download the slides (PDF)
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