Politics & Society

Putting Immigrant-Origin Workers at the Center of the Future of Work Discussion in the United States

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, two themes dominated the discussions about the future of work in the United States. One focused on the impact of an aging population, declining birthrates and falling labor force participation of white men on the slow growth of the workforce.


Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, two themes dominated the discussions about the future of work in the United States. One focused on the impact of an aging population, declining birthrates and falling labor force participation of white men on the slow growth of the workforce. The other concerned the impact of technological advancements such as automation, robotics and digitization. The pandemic accelerated the underlying demographic dynamics (e.g., by prompting early retirement) and technological developments (e.g., by expanding remote work and adoption of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace). These changes helped to usher in an era of significant workplace transitions across sectors and across skill levels. McKinsey estimated that up to 25% more workers than initially thought in advanced economies may need to switch occupations by 2030.

Both the pre- and post-pandemic conversations about the future of work have largely overlooked another important force shaping the U.S. labor markets: immigration. In 2022, close to 88 million immigrants and their U.S.-born children (referred to here as the immigrant-origin population) resided in the country, accounting for 27% of all U.S. residents. This population already drives growth in college enrollment and the workforce across the nation. Students from immigrant families accounted for almost 80% of the increase in U.S. college enrollment between 2000 and 2022. They also made up 27% of the U.S. workforce in 2022. In large immigrant destination states, such as California, New Jersey and New York, that share is in the range of 40% to 50%. According to U.S. projections, the immigrant-origin population will be the sole source of net growth in the U.S. working-age population over the next decade.

Because nearly half of immigrant-origin persons have been born, raised and educated in the U.S. their outcomes are viewed as an additional “benchmark” for successful immigrant integration policy. Additionally, because almost four in five of these individuals are racial and ethnic minorities (i.e., Latinos, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, or African American) their educational and economic success represents not only successful immigrant integration but also progress towards racial equity.

How to tap this demographically large, diverse and growing group to make migration as beneficial as possible for both the U.S. economy and immigrant families? The U.S. needs to help them develop or improve the workplace and language skills necessary for success in the changing labor market and remove barriers to their full economic participation. Bringing immigrant-origin adults into the conversation about the future of work is important for understanding how to boost their economic contributions going forward.


The post-pandemic labor market is changing rapidly. This is driven by demographic dynamics; disruptive technology like ChatGPT; new and significant investments into a green economy, semiconductor industry and infrastructure development; and new global challenges such as the rise in cybersecurity threats. The mix of available jobs, and skills needed to perform them, is also changing. This is making it more urgent to equip workers with skills, credentials and work experience to prepare for the changes ahead. These competencies must go beyond high school education, given that the most recent U.S. occupational projections show that 72% of U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education or training.

The demographically important immigrant-origin population has a diverse set of skills that can be tapped. While many immigrant-origin workers are well positioned to navigate the changing labor market, others may fall behind. Research shows that workers with higher levels of education were in a better position to navigate the pandemic-related recession. For instance, they were able to switch to teleworking with little interruption or could move across industries doing essentially the same type of work. However, nearly half of immigrantorigin adults lack a quality postsecondary credential beyond a high school education, with shares higher among workers who are racial and ethnic minorities, women, and employed in low-skilled jobs. Policymakers, practitioners in both higher education and workforce development, and employers should consider the unique barriers and opportunities of several target groups:

- IMMIGRANT WORKERS WITH LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENCY More than 28.7 million immigrants were engaged in the civilian labor force across different sectors and different skill levels in 2021. Of them, 43% had limited proficiency in English. Research shows the importance of English proficiency and literacy in shaping immigrants’ economic outcomes such as wages and occupational status. Instruction to improve English proficiency in the workplace context (i.e., by combining technical and academic instruction with English learning) have been shown to be particularly beneficial to immigrant workers, not only from the point of view of getting a job, but also enabling workers to move up the career ladder.

- UNDEREMPLOYED COLLEGE-EDUCATED IMMIGRANTS More than 2 million, or one in five, immigrant college graduates are either unemployed or work in jobs requiring no more than a high school education due to limited English proficiency, lack of professional networks, poor recognition of international credentials and other barriers. Immigrant professionals who experience difficulties restarting their careers once they arrive in the U.S. would benefit from career counseling and access to additional training to close educational and language gaps. At the same time, rethinking licensing laws could be a critical step in recognizing internationally earned credentials and skills—an issue that already has been addressed by numerous promising models developed at the state level across the U.S. The time is right to focus on this population given that 47% of immigrants who entered the U.S. between 2017 and 2021 had a bachelor’s degree or more (compared to 35% of U.S.-born adults). The U.S. is not the only country facing “brain waste” or skill underutilization of its newcomers. In fact, better and faster recognition of qualifications of third-country nationals in the EU has been a key priority identified by the European Commission in its “European Year of Skills” agenda.

- IMMIGRANT-ORIGIN STUDENTS IN SECONDARY AND POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION As of 2022, 6.1 million immigrant-origin students were enrolled in colleges and universities. Addressing universal barriers to college completion such as financial instability, competing family and work pressures, and mental health as well as immigrant specific barriers, such as legal status for immigrant students, would help to ensure that both private and public investment being made in their education bear results. An additional 6.1 million immigrant-origin youth (aged 14-18) were in high school as of 2022. While many will be graduating from high school in the coming years, their postsecondary enrollment and graduation prospects may be at risk because of pandemic related learning gaps as well as other barriers such as the rising cost of college education; lack of information about market-valuable credentials; and immigration-related barriers such as lack of legal status or having a family member facing deportation from the U.S.

- IMMIGRANT-ORIGIN ADULTS WITHOUT A POSTSECONDARY CREDENTIAL More than 29 million immigrant-origin adults (aged 16-64) had no postsecondary credential, representing roughly 31% of all U.S. adults without such a credential in 2022. Some of these adults would need to obtain a high school education first. These adults face multiple barriers to credential attainment, including lack of basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and digital skills; limited English proficiency; and financial pressures. Similar to other groups discussed above, not having a stable legal status is a major obstacle for many immigrant adults without a postsecondary credential. Their ability to pursue postsecondary credentials will depend on decisions by federal and state governments regarding immigrants’ rights to remain in the country and the unique barriers they face to postsecondary education and job skills training.

While investing in the success of these target groups should be a no-brainer, making such investments is not straightforward in the current political environment in the U.S., which is characterized by a long-standing impasse in Congress over border, asylum and other immigration policies. In addition, there is growing anti-immigrant rhetoric in the national debate and some states, and increasingly difficult conversations about the state and local governments’ high costs of hosting new arrivals. Policymakers who wish to advance smart immigrant integration policies that support long-term economic growth and prosperity of all community members could turn to the lessons learned from the U.S.’s long history of often welcoming immigrants.

Both U.S. research and comparative international work find that immigrants and their U.S.-born children, motivated by the promise of the “American Dream”, have made major strides in linguistic, economic, educational, social and political integration. In the process, they have also made significant social and economic contributions to the U.S. Immigrants and their children are among prominent figures in various fields, including tech pioneers such as Sergey Brin of Google, business leaders such as Hamdi Ulukaya of yogurt company Chobani, Hollywood icons such as “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz and influential political leaders such as Madeleine Albright. History has repeatedly shown that the U.S. has greatly benefited from investing in its “Immigrant Dream”.

Building on these historical lessons, ensuring access to the needed credentials and promoting the idea of continuing learning among immigrant-origin workers and students should be pillars of both labor and immigrant integration policy. Such a commitment holds the promise of bettering lives of the 88 million immigrant-origin individuals in the U.S., but also of reducing projected labor and skills gaps in sectors such as healthcare, education, advanced manufacturing and computer design services. More broadly, given uncertainty about the impact of technology on the workplace, immigrant-origin and other workers need to have genuine opportunities to continue learning new skills so that they are able to adapt nimbly to the changing workplace environment and offer competencies that match employers’ evolving needs.

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Migration Policy Institute. *


Originally published
in System Updates: Resetting the Future of Work

Jeanne Batalova