Skill vs. education in immigration

Brookings has a study out today that shows that there are now more immigrants with college degrees in the U.S. than immigrants without high school diplomas. In 1980, only 19 percent of immigrants had their BA or higher; today that number is 29.6 percent.

This is an important, stereotype busting, statistic but I’m not sure that thinking of these numbers in terms of skills is entirely accurate. The Brookings study calls that 29.6 percent “high skilled” and refers to the 27.8 percent of immigrants who have not completed high school as “low skilled.” The largest group—42.6 percent—are somewhere in the middle, having completed secondary education and maybe some college.

Table shows rise of the highly educated immigrant. From "The Geography of Immigrant Skills: Educational Profiles of Metropolitan Areas," Hall, et. al., Brookings (click graphic for full report).

The authors do acknowledge that skill and educational attainment are not the same thing, but justify their terminology this way:

To be sure, educational attainment is not a perfect measure of occupational skill, particularly among the foreign-born, for whom the quality of educational degrees received abroad may vary substantially. Nor is educational attainment the only measure of human capital, which can include labor market experience and job- and sector-specific knowledge and training. Yet educational attainment itself remains a strong predictor of employment, job stability, and wages—especially for workers at the high and low ends of the educational distribution.

But I’d take issue with that, at least anecdotally. Many immigrants who have not completed high school are nonetheless highly skilled in whatever field they have chosen: building, fixing cars, agriculture, etc., even running small businesses. And in my experience, this high skill is often recognized and rewarded by U.S. employers, regardless of resume. I’d like to see more data on the assertion that schooling is still a strong predictor of employment and wages.

I do like how Audrey Singer, one of the authors of the report, talks about the context of the issue and it’s relevance for immigration reform, without demonizing “low-skill” immigrants:

Her tone jives with one of the key findings of the report:

Our report confirms what some industries, employers and municipalities have already begun to recognize: that the new arrivals to this country should be viewed as a positive and skilled addition to the labor force rather than as a strain on society. By examining the new geography of immigrant skills across the 100 top metropolitan areas, we have also provided the data necessary for beginning to explore more inclusive immigration policies at the local, state and regional levels.

Perhaps that opens the door for more cities and states to think proactively on immigration rather than in the reactionary way we’ve been seeing.