The US has a shortage of non-college-educated immigrants

The drop in immigration to the US comes as jobs in low-paying, physically-demanding industries remain unfilled

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Now hiring sign at In-N-Out restaurant.
Labor shortages persist.
Image: Mike Blake (Reuters)

Part of the sustained labor shortage in the US can be explained by the drop in immigration.

But the decline in the number of in foreign-born workers in the US varies by educational attainment. After experiencing a drop in 2020 during the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the number of college-educated foreign-born workers is back to its pre-pandemic level, according to an analysis of US Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Glassdoor, a jobs board site.


Meanwhile, a shortfall of foreign-born workers without a college degree remains. In October, these workers totaled 17.21 million, down 1 million from 18.21 million in September 2018. They also make up most of the foreign-born workers pool in the US.


The timing of the drop in the working-age immigrant population suggests two distinct explanations. For highly-educated workers, the drop was likely associated with visa processing delays and a temporary pause in corporate hiring during the period of pandemic-related lockdowns, said Aaron Terrazas, the chief economist at Glassdoor. For immigrants without college degrees, the decline predates the pandemic and may be more associated with shifting immigration policies in the US.

Why the decline in foreign-born workers without college degrees in the US?

In 2018, the dramatic drop in foreign-born workers without college degrees happened as the Trump administration sought to restrict immigration. The White House cracked down on who can enter the country and made the visa application process more time-consuming and difficult.


Then, the pandemic came along. Foreign-born workers faced higher unemployment than native workers in 2020, according to a Pew Research report. Some unemployed immigrants, especially if their visa was employment-based, may have returned to their home nations, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That drove down the total foreign-born labor force.

The decline in the number of foreign-born workers without college degrees comes as employment in the US leisure and hospitality industry remains depressed, down 6% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Foreign-born workers are more likely than native-born workers in the US to be employed in jobs in the service, construction, and transportation industries. That helps explain why restaurants and hotels are still having a hard time finding workers.