Share of immigrants in Massachusetts workforce nearly doubles since 1980

BOSTON — June 19, 2005 — The share of immigrants in the Massachusetts workforce nearly doubled from 9 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2004, according to a research report released today by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC).

At the same time that immigrants are playing a critical role in the Massachusetts economy and the skills required for success in the labor market are increasing, growing numbers of immigrants have limited English-speaking skills. A The Changing Face of Massachusetts finds that increased immigration in the Bay State has been marked by a higher percentage of immigrants with limited English language skills. The share of such immigrants increased from 17.5 percent in 1980 to 21.5 percent in 2004. Among the immigrants who arrived in Massachusetts during the 1990’s, 1 of 4 had limited English language skills, accelerating a shift that saw the overall number increase by almost 92,000 between 1980 and 2000. This translated into nearly 100,000 additional immigrants with limited English-speaking skills. The ability to speak English proficiently has become the new fault line, dividing those who enjoy economic success from those who do not. Chelsea had the Commonwealth’s highest share of overall population – 14 percent – with low levels of English language skills, followed by Lawrence at 12 percent. In Boston, 7 percent of the population was in that category. The report find shows that a new immigrant who only speaks primarily English at home earns 2.5 times as much as the annual income of one who does not speak English well ($38,526 vs. $14,221).

“Massachusetts is experiencing an immigration boom,” said Ian Bowles, President and CEO of MassINC.  “Were it not for immigrants, our labor force would be shrinking. We already face major demographic challenges in terms of Baby Boomers retiring and residents leaving our state. This report makes it clear that immigrants are fundamental to the Commonwealth’s future and that English language skills are a major dividing line in their opportunity to pursue the American Dream.”

A joint project of MassINC and the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, The Changing Face of Massachusetts is sponsored by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Verizon, Citizens Bank, Polaroid, and Bank of America’s Frank W. and Carl S. Adams Memorial Fund.

The research also find port shows that immigrants are concentrated in the state’s urban centers, especially the cities in the eastern part of the state. an urban pattern to immigrant settlement Nearly one-quarter of all immigrants currently live in Suffolk County, although the area accounts for only 11 percent of the state’s population. In 11 of the 20 largest Massachusetts cities, at least 1 in 4 immigrants has limited English-language skills. The problem is especially acute in the cities of New Bedford, Fall River, Lawrence, and Lynn where 1 in 3 immigrants don’t speak English well. In some cities, a substantial portion of the overall population has limited English language skills. Chelsea has the Commonwealth’s highest share of its resident population – 14 percent – with limited English language skills, followed by Lawrence at 12 percent. In Boston, 7 percent of the population was in that category. It is clear that teaching immigrants to speak

English proficiently is central to urban revitalization strategies. “These communities are emerging as gateway cities for immigrants,” said Bowles. “Embracing this new population will be critical to their urban renewal.”

The Changing Face of Massachusetts documents a Bay State trend toward immigration from countries where English is not a primary language. In 1980, two-thirds of the state’s immigrants were from Europe and Canada. In contrast, almost half (47 percent) of the immigrants who arrived between 2000 and 2004 were from Latin America and the Caribbean. An additional 23 percent came from Asia. Today, Brazil is the leading country of origin, accounting for nearly 1 of 5 (19 percent) of new Massachusetts immigrants.

“These new immigrants are important assets for the Commonwealth’s economy human capital,” said Professor Andrew Sum, Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and the report’s lead author. “ It’s in the state’s economic and social interest to address their ability to participate effectively in a changing workforce. However, there is a clear and overwhelming need for increased education and training programs that can allow them to better participate in and contribute to the state’s economy.”

Other key findings in The Changing Face of Massachusetts include the following:

  • The arrival of 172,054 new immigrants between 2000 and 2004 enabled Massachusetts to avoid a marked decline in overall population.
  • Nearly 30 percent of adult immigrants have at least a college degree. However, immigrants are more than three times as likely as native-born adults to lack a high school diploma (29 percent vs. 8 percent).
  • The average annual earnings of an immigrant college graduate are $40,179, compared with $14,687 for immigrant high school dropouts.
  • Among all adult immigrants in Massachusetts, 71 percent are not prepared for the knowledge economy. Across the state, 245,161 immigrants either lack a high school diploma or have limited English-speaking skills. Another 221,986 immigrants lack essential literacy skills for high level jobs in the workplace.

    About MassINC

    MassINC (The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth) is a nonpartisan, evidence-based organization. Its mission is to develop a public agenda for Massachusetts that promotes the growth and vitality of the middle class. Its governing philosophy is rooted in the ideals embodied in the American Dream: equality of opportunity, personal responsibility, and a strong commonwealth.

    About the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University

    Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies is a research organization that analyzes national, regional, state and local labor market developments that are of interest to policy-makers, program administrators and the general public. Their work focuses on a range of issues related to workforce development, policy making, planning, and program evaluation.


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