The News Service
Jean Burritt Robertson
Immigration and labor force participation: Have times changed?
Nationwide, manufacturing jobs, once the mainstay of the middle income, have been shrinking. In 1969 more than 34 percent of working Rhode Islanders were employed in manufacturing, today that number is 12 percent. Low-income service jobs have increasingly replaced manufacturing jobs. If today’s immigrants are to become the grandparents of tomorrow’s professionals, education and language skills will be a major key.
My grandmother, Bridget O’Donnell, and grandfather, James Moran, emigrated from the south coast of Ireland to the United States via the Port of Boston in search of opportunity and employment.
If you have read accounts of the great Irish immigration to Boston you know that many businesses refused to hire the Irish and that living conditions were so terrible that disease spread rapidly. According to noted historian Oscar Handlin, the Irish lived an average of only 14 years after arriving in Boston.
Despite some setbacks, including the Great Depression that impacted so many American families, my grandparents survived the daunting environment of their time. My mother, their youngest child, graduated from high school with honors at age 15 and instilled in her children the love of books and the importance of education.
Today, my generation – four siblings and I – has had a substantial share of success that our Irish immigrant grandparents hoped they would find in America.
What can we expect from the current immigrants to our shores? Are they different than the immigrants that preceded them? Is the America that they arrive in a different place? Will they find the opportunities that may have inspired them to emigrate?
First, we can and should expect great things from our new immigrants and their children. The spirit, initiative, and risk taking that prompt people to move to a new country and start a new life are precisely the same qualities that go into the making of an entrepreneur.
Most of today’s immigrants come from Latin America and Asia – in fact, more than 50 percent of the immigration during the last 10 years has come from Latin America. About 83 percent of current immigrants do not speak English at home. This presents an additional difficulty not encountered by the Irish, English or Scottish. The language barrier has a profound impact on job selection, and performance.
Between 1990 and 2001 immigrants accounted for more than half the growth in the U.S. civilian labor force, concentrated not only in low wage sectors, but in sectors like building trades, where interest among the native born population was waning during a period of building boom. By 2000, Hispanic workers accounted for 15 percent of construction employment in the United States.
How has this change affected business? Increasingly businesses are promoting English as a second language programs, paying for their employees to pursue education aimed at improving their ability to communicate. Many sponsor on-site literacy classes. Managers and supervisors are increasingly taking Spanish language classes too in an effort to better communicate with their workforce.
Like most new immigrants, today’s immigrants may be over-represented in high-risk jobs. This problem is compounded by the language differences between supervisory and non-supervisor staff. In 2000 the work related fatality rate was 39 percent higher for Hispanic workers. Training manuals, OSHA regulations and safety drills need to be translated and offered in languages other than English to ensure the safety of all workers.
In many ways, today’s immigrants encounter a better situation than their predecessors. State-wide health insurance offers protections not afforded in the past and welfare to work programs give families time and resources to acquire skills and education before transitioning to full time employment.
On another front, the increasing bifurcation of the labor force is an issue of concern. Nationwide and in Rhode Island, manufacturing jobs, once the mainstay of the middle income, have been shrinking. In 1969 more than 34 percent of working Rhode Islanders were employed in manufacturing, today that number is 12 percent. Low-income service jobs have increasingly replaced manufacturing jobs.
As a result of technological changes, industrial restructuring, shifts in family structure and labor force participation, the last four decades have been characterized by a shifting distribution of U.S. household income. Census data indicate that between 1979 and 1994, the top 5 percent of households increased their share of total U.S. income from 16.9 percent to 21.2 percent. During the same time period the bottom 20 percent of households experienced a share loss from 4.1 percent to 3.9 percent.
Job growth has occurred in areas requiring higher education levels and technological skills as well as in low skill areas at the lower end of the wage scale. These trends have led not only to an increasing gap between the highest and lowest wages for all workers but also to an increasingly precarious distance between rungs in the job development ladder. If today’s immigrants are to become the grandparents of tomorrow’s professionals, education and language skills will be a major key.