Dirty Work

What are the jobs Americans won’t do?

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. Americans work longer hours than Europeans—1,804 hours per worker for the United States in 2005, compared to 1,434 in Germany and 1,535 in France, according to the OECD.

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, people who won’t disrupt operations by getting rounded up in Homeland Security sweeps. But they just can’t find any Americans willing to do their jobs. As President Bush himself said last March, the United States needs a temporary guest-worker program that would “match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do.”

What are these jobs that Americans will not do? Do they exist? Or are they a figment of the business community’s imagination? It turns out that their claims are largely true—there are plenty of jobs Americans avoid. Let’s take a tour of them. Americans shun pretty much any unskilled labor that requires them to get their hands dirty: landscaping, entry-level construction, picking fruits and vegetables (Reuters report s that “up to 70 percent of U.S. farm workers are estimated to be undocumented, totaling about 500,000 people”), 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. The Washington Post, for example, recently reported that Georgia’s carpet factories are increasingly dominated by Mexican immigrant workers.

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. This survey from the American Hospital Association says there are 118,000 nursing vacancies in the United States. Meanwhile, a 2003 report by the Council on Graduate Medical Education suggested there could be a shortage of anywhere from 65,000 to 150,000 doctors in 2020. (Given the time it takes to educate and train a physician, it’s not too soon to worry.)

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 ITAA (and pretty much every technology company) supports boosting the number of H-1B visas above the current limit of 65,000 per fiscal year.

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—including disputed proposals to open recruiting stations overseas 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. “AACSB International, the accrediting organization for business schools, estimates a shortage of 1,000 Ph.D.s in the U.S. this year that will grow to 2,400 by 2012.” (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, and for their customers—everyone from meat-eaters to hospital patients—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 Army may need foreign nationals to help fill its ranks, but the private security firms that pay six-figure salaries to ex-military types for security work don’t. People without much in the way of skills or education probably prefer to take entry-level jobs at Wal-Mart rather than work at a meat-packing plant, even though it might pay a little less—it’s less dangerous and disgusting.

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.

Run across an example of a job Americans aren’t willing to do? Send it to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)