Misdirection is a powerful tool in the hands of an illusionist: by drawing your attention to something shiny, you are compelled to miss what is important directly in front of you. An act of misdirection in our labor markets is the persistent myth of immigration’s role in suppressing wages for blue collar jobs – a myth that distracts from broader questions about why, in an economy with 114,000 vacancies across Minnesota, wages are not keeping up with the cost of living.
Why wages vary in regions and markets across the state is a complicated question. Still, by doing an apples-to-apples comparison of similar jobs in different regions with varying levels of immigration, and looking in particular at jobs that tend to have high numbers of immigrant workers, it appears that the correlations between immigration and low wages simply don’t exist. Just as the National Institutes of Health, Science and Engineering concluded in their national analysis, immigration appears to have no noticeable impact on wages for Minnesota workers.1
2012-2016 American Community Survey, MN DEED Job Vacancy Survey
Immigration is essential to Minnesota’s economy. Immigrants in Minnesota paid $3.3 billion in federal, state and local taxes and owned businesses that generated about $300 million in business income.2 Without immigrants, many industries such as food processing and health care –which already face worker shortages — will be further stymied. The people who depend on these industries such as seniors aging in place would be unserved or underserved.
According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), 90% of our current labor force growth is from communities of color. This trend is expected to continue for the next 15 years. Over 43% of this growth will be workers who are immigrants. Immigrant workers are also significantly younger than workers born in the United States – about 40% of immigrants in Minnesota are under 21 and are just beginning to enter the labor force.
DEED’s Job Vacancy Survey reports almost 114,000 current job opening in Minnesota.3 Many of these openings are for jobs like personal and home care workers, child care providers, retail workers, construction laborers, and others that do not require extensive training or education. Only 33% of the current job opening require some sort of post-secondary education. With a current state unemployment rate of 3% it is unsurprising that there are a fair number of job openings and many of these openings are for lower wage jobs.
Immigrant workers in Minnesota are more likely to have an advanced degree than workers born in the United States, but also have a larger number of workers with less than a high school diploma.4 Not surprisingly, immigrant workers are employed in jobs that are consistent with workers who were born in the United States with similar levels of education.
MN DEED, Occupational and Employment Statistics
Even though different parts of the state have different economies, it is possible to look at employment by specific jobs to see if there is variation between people doing the same type of job in different regions.
According to DEED, jobs that have a high number of immigrant workers include the personal and home health care and janitorial fields.5 While average wages vary slightly by region, this variation has no correlation with the percent of the population who are immigrants. For example a personal and home care aide in Northeast Minnesota has the same median hourly wage as a personal and home care aide in Southeast Minnesota even though Southeast has an immigrant population share that is three times that of Northeast Minnesota. Janitors in Northwest Minnesota make less than those in Southwest Minnesota and more than those in Central Minnesota, both of which have a higher immigrant population.
While Minnesota is doing well relative to other states in unemployment and wage growth, there are still far too many jobs that do not pay a fair wage or enough to support a family. These jobs are are critical to our communities. Blaming workers for low wages becomes a wedge between groups of hard working people in communities across Minnesota and acts as a barrier for workers with common interests to join together in advocating for better wages, benefits, and conditions.
1 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Health, The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration
2 New American Economy, Contributions of New Americans in Minnesota
4 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, Selected Characteristics of Native and Foreign-Born Populations
5 Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Immigrants and the Economy