Immigrants not competition for jobs?

Cardiff de Alejo Garcia links to a paper by economists Gianmarco IP Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri that tries to make the case that, because US and foreign-born workers choose different occupations, they’re really not competing for the same jobs. (The paper itself is behind a paywall.)

The main thrust of the argument seems to be this:

Certain jobs get lots of foreign-born workers while others get almost exclusively US workers (tailors 54% foreign-born, crane operators 1% foreign-born). Because of this, more foreign workers won’t increase unemployment, because the foreigners would just be competing with other foreigners for those jobs. Further, more foreign workers won’t even decrease US wages, because even another thousand tailors won’t put any pressure on wages for crane operators.

No doubt my own experience as a software engineer colors my perceptions (computer engineers are 33% foreign-born), but I’m unconvinced.

For one thing, these sorts of pressures occur at the margin. Even a modest number of workers (of any nationality) willing to work for less, will have the effect of holding down wages for everyone else.

For another, there is indirect pressure. Even if a Chinese cook doesn’t compete with a US cook for a job at a diner, another thousand of them will hold down wages for Chinese cooks. That will result in lower costs for Chinese restaurants, which do compete with diners. That puts pressure on diners to hold down their costs—including wages for cooks.

Finally, people’s job and career decisions aren’t static in the face of these pressures. Perhaps few software engineers decided to become lawyers (only 4% foreign-born), but a great number of software engineers have moved on to doing something different. Each one who does so is now competing in that new field, potentially holding down wages over there.

Of course, outsourcing production overseas has had at least as strong an impact on employment and salary levels as immigration has. I’m just glad that I figured out early that I would shortly be competing with someone who could live a middle-class lifestyle on $6000 a year. That gave me a few years to take the necessary steps to arrange my life otherwise.

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