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The labor pool would be (almost) flat if not for immigrants

People leave the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Miramar, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee
People leave the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Miramar, Fla.

If it weren’t for people coming from abroad to the U.S., the American labor pool would likely be smaller today than it was before the Great Recession.

Put this another way: If the number of people available to work in America had continued growing at the same rate after the 2007-2009 Great Recession as before, there would be a lot more people able to fill jobs.

Why? Baby Boomers and immigrants.

READ MORE: Migrants from some countries wait months for employment permit — while others can work right away

Baby Boomers have been retiring and leaving the labor pool. And immigrants have helped pick up the slack.

"If we had the same growth rate that we had before the Great Recession, the working-age population today would be about 11% higher than it is today,” said Frederico Mandelman, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

The number of people in their prime working ages of between 25 and 54 years old has barely budged in the past decade — only beginning to increase after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the number of foreign-born people in those working ages has increased by 6%.

Florida's labor force is heavily influenced by immigrant workers. While the U.S.-born workforce has grown by about 30% in the past two decades, the number of foreign-born workers in Florida has more than doubled to 2.8 million.

With more than one in four people working in Florida born outside the country, that means Florida’s economy has a higher proportion of workers not born in the U.S. compared to the country as a whole. And the Southeast region of the U.S. has more foreign-born workers than any other region in the country except for the west coast. And it has the lowest unemployment rate among foreign-born workers nationwide.

Florida’s workforce has been growing slowly over the past 20 years, however, the share of prime age workers has shrunk. As a percentage of the population, young people under 26 years old, and workers in their prime earning years — mid 30s to mid-50s have been dropping.

Florida’s reputation as a magnet for retirees is well-deserved. The fastest growing age group in Florida over the past many years are people 65 years and older. They are much less likely to be working and instead, creating demand for services such as health care.

All this adds up to a falling share of people participating in the job market, except for people born overseas. About two-thirds of the foreign born population count themselves part of the job market.

The term “foreign-born” in the data includes legally admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents like students and workers and undocumented immigrants.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been pretty steady in recent years and has dropped since the Great Recession 15 years ago. Even as the economy picked up after the housing crash, undocumented workers did not flood the job market in the traditional jobs.

"But as the economy started to recover and it was a long expansionary process, by the year 2016-17, you could clearly see there were some shortages in these occupations. It was very, very hard to find a childcare or a construction worker," said Mandelman.

And these shortages have remained as the regional unemployment rate has remained near historic lows for months.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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