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Friday, January 12, 2007

Are There Jobs Americans Won't Do?

One of the arguments for immigration or for guest worker programs is that there are some jobs Americans won't do -- so we need to allow people into the U.S. who will. Daniel Gross looks at this assertion:

Dirty Work, by Daniel Gross, Slate: The United States is a nation of hard workers. Compared with many other developed countries, the U.S. boasts high rates of labor-force participation and productivity and has a very low unemployment rate. ...

Yet it's increasingly common to hear politicians, CEOs, and immigration activists impugn American workers as a bunch of shiftless layabouts who regard many good jobs as beneath their dignity. That, they say, is why employers have to turn to immigrants—some of them legal, many of them illegal. To hear CEOs tell it, they'd much rather hire English-speaking, tax-paying U.S. citizens... But they just can't find any Americans willing to do their jobs. ...

What are these jobs that Americans will not do? Do they exist? ... It turns out that their claims are largely true—there are plenty of jobs Americans avoid. ... Americans shun pretty much any unskilled labor that requires them to get their hands dirty: landscaping, entry-level construction, picking fruits and vegetables ..., cleaning hotel rooms, busing tables, and prep cooking in urban restaurants. But the refusal to do jobs is moving up the value chain. American workers appear to be less interested in some kinds of factory jobs. ...

Americans, it seems, are also less willing to take stressful jobs that require lots of training and long hours, and that require them to work in unpleasant environments. For example, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing is warning of a nursing shortage. ... Spending your days tethered to a computer is also work that many Americans avoid. The Information Technology Association of America notes that 77 percent of companies it polled said there was a shortage of qualified IT talent in the United States. The solution: Import more geeks. ...

The more one looks, the more shortages of willing workers appear. Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe last month reported that the Pentagon is "considering expanding the number of noncitizens in the ranks ... and putting more immigrants on a faster track to U.S. citizenship if they volunteer." Today, about 2 percent of the soldiers protecting America—about 30,000—aren't technically Americans. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported on a dire shortage of professors of accounting, finance, and management that may cause some schools to curtail course offerings. ... (Apparently, American citizens with Ph.D.s in accounting, finance, and management can get high-paying, satisfying jobs in the private sector. Who knew?)

For the industries involved, ... these shortages are a real challenge. But when employers have difficulty filling jobs at the wages they wish to pay, and as a result seek foreign-born workers, they shouldn't blame it on a fundamental unwillingness of Americans to work in those industries or professions. After all, in many of these fields—construction, nursing, the military, teaching, accounting—Americans still fill most positions. Immigrants tend to predominate only in the least attractive work imaginable—manual, back-breaking, seasonal, benefitless, farm labor.

Americans haven't grown too wealthy and snooty for the kind of work that gets your hands dirty, or for nursing, or for computer programming. Rather, the people who have the skills to enter those fields also have opportunities and skills to enter other fields. And so they have to decide whether the rewards—monetary and psychological—of the opportunity before them are worth it. It's not so much that Americans aren't willing to pick fruit and become computer programmers. Rather, they aren't willing to do those jobs for the prevailing wages and benefits. ...

The failure here isn't in the work ethic of Americans. Rather, it lies with the CEOs, business owners, university and hospital administrators, and government officials—and ultimately, with all of us who benefit from cheap labor—to offer the wages and benefits necessary to attract sufficient numbers of legal workers. There's a reason they call the labor market a market.

At a high enough wage, you can find people willing to do just about anything.

    Posted by on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 09:27 AM in Economics, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (71)


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