Date: July 10, 2019
President Trump recently announced that he would like to dramatically change our immigration system, to allow only the most highly skilled immigrants to settle in the United States. This proposal obscures an important trend that has emerged in recent years: That the immigrants the United States admits today are already strikingly more educated than immigrants we welcomed several decades ago. In 2017, for instance, more than 60 percent of immigrants aged 25 or older who were admitted had at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1980, just 15.7 percent did.
The newest immigrants are bringing skills that U.S. employers desperately need. To understand how immigrants already fill gaps in our workforce—from a shortage of medical professionals to a need for more engineers—we analyzed 2017 data on legal immigrants who moved to the United States within the last year.. What we find is that these new Americans are incredibly well-positioned to fill persistently vacant, skilled positions, allowing companies to expand and create jobs for U.S. workers at all skill levels.
Each dot at right represents 1,000 recent immigrants, or those who arrived in the United States within the last year. Only those immigrants old enough to be in the workforce—those over 16—are shown.
As recently as 1980, most immigrants did not have a high school education. Today, the most common level of education among the recent immigrants was a bachelor’s degree (30 percent), followed closely by graduate-level education (24 percent).
Employers in recent years have faced a dire shortage of workers with expertise in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (or STEM). As recently as 2016, 13 open STEM jobs were posted online for every one unemployed STEM worker. A large number of recent immigrants have degrees in these fields. For this visualization, STEM degrees include: engineering, mathematics, statistics, psychology, architecture, medical, health, life, physical, computer, and transportation sciences.
Looking at the nine most common bachelor’s degree fields of study for recent immigrants, more than half of the top nine are in STEM disciplines. Close to 28,000 new immigrants had degrees in computer sciences, while almost 18,000 studied health and medicine. Of those without STEM degrees, more than 45,000 studied business.
STEM jobs are not the only ones difficult to fill. Employers in some parts of the country struggle to find enough healthcare workers to care for rapidly aging Baby Boomers. One NAE study, for instance, found that 135 counties in the United States—often rural ones with high healthcare needs—lack even a single active physician. Researchers also predict the United States will be short more than 900,000 nurses by 2030.
In 2017, recent immigrants were almost four times more likely than the U.S.-born population to work as engineers. These more than 13,000 professionals are invaluable to U.S. employers trying to expand and base operations in America: One recent study found that 82 percent of employers hiring engineers in 2016 anticipated they would have serious trouble finding enough qualified workers.
The top occupation for recently arrived legal immigrants in 2017 was postsecondary teacher or college professor. Recent immigrants, in fact, made up roughly one out of every 11 college professors in 2017. Immigrants have long played a major role in generating intellectual capital: More than three out of every four patents awarded to the top 10 most productive U.S. research universities in recent years have had at least one foreign-born inventor. Such patents often generate revenue for universities and spark the creation of new businesses and opportunities on U.S. soil.