Where RI Leads in Foreign-Born Workers


Pew Charitable Trusts has a still-new interactive tool to investigate estimated “Immigrant Employment by State and Industry.”  Beginning with national numbers, the tool provides the comparative likelihood that immigrants will be employed in a particular industry compared with those born within the United States.

In construction, for example, the national ratio is 1.5, meaning that an immigrant is 1.5 times more likely to be working in construction than somebody born here.  So, if you randomly selected 100 each of foreign-born U.S. workers and U.S.-born U.S. workers, for every two native-born construction workers, there would be three immigrants.  Viewed this way, the data won’t tell us how many immigrants there are in the state or what portion of the workforce they represent, but it does have some interesting lessons, nonetheless.

Compared with the national numbers, Rhode Island stands out in four industries.  In both “agriculture and extraction” and “construction,” Rhode Island has significantly lower immigrant employment than the national figures, which makes sense in agriculture, although not quite so much in construction.

On the other hand, immigrant employment is notably strong in both “administrative services” (which includes, among other things, low-end office-, facilities-, and waste-related services) and “manufacturing.”  Working immigrants are 2.6 times more likely to work in administrative services than U.S.-born Rhode Islanders, versus a national ratio of 1.7, and 2.1 times more likely to work in manufacturing , versus a national ratio of 1.2.

At another layer of analysis, immigrants tend to be more prominent in those industries that constitute more of Rhode Island’s employment than is true for the United States overall.  Of the 13 industry sectors listed, four account for more Rhode Island jobs than is true nationally.  Of those four, RI has a higher immigrant employment ratio than the nation in three.  By contrast, all of the industries that are less significant for employment in Rhode Island than in the country overall lean toward U.S.-born employees.

Manufacturing adds another interesting data point.  Although the industry is more significant for RI employment than national employment (11% to 10% of all employment, respectively), it is less significant for GDP (8% RI versus 12% U.S.).  To some degree, the specific mix of manufacturing in the United States is likely to play a role in that, but it does make one wonder whether manufacturers in Rhode Island are turning to immigrant workers at a greater rate specifically to trim costs and stay in business despite the hostile economic environment.

One final observation: In both Rhode Island and nationally, “public administration” (i.e., government) leans the most toward U.S.-born employees, and although this “industry” accounts for the same amount of employment, in the Ocean State, it accounts for a little bit more of GDP (14% versus 13% nationally).  Combined with the increased prominence of other industries closely associated with government in Rhode Island, such as education and healthcare (also relatively likely to have U.S.-born employees), that would seem to be evidence of my “company state” thesis, with government importing foreign clients for its services.