With robust job growth and low unemployment, California’s post-pandemic economy looks strong on many measures, and the state must take actions to sustain this growth and address future needs. One important issue is the job market’s rising demand for highly educated workers. California’s immigrant workers are increasingly college educated and will be critical to the state’s future economic growth.
Recent immigrants to California are among the most educated residents of the state. A majority (52%) of working-age immigrants (ages 25–64) arriving over the past ten years have a bachelor’s or graduate degree, compared to just 29% of immigrants arriving earlier and 41% of US-born Californians. Recent arrivals from Asia are particularly highly educated. But for every region of origin, the trend is toward much more highly educated immigrants.
These trends are partly a response to the strong job market for college graduates in California. Immigrants make up 27% of the state’s workers ages 25–64 with a bachelor’s degree, and an even higher share (36%) of those with a graduate degree. Highly educated immigrants in California work in a broad set of industries, including manufacturing, information, professional services, and health care and social assistance, but are especially concentrated in technology and health care sectors. For example, over 60% of college-educated workers in electronic and computer equipment manufacturing are immigrants, as are almost half of college graduates working in skilled nursing facilities. Consistently, occupations with a large share (and number) of immigrants include software developers, computer and information systems managers, engineers, physical scientists, and registered nurses.
College-educated immigrants live predominantly in the state’s coastal metropolitan areas, particularly the Bay Area. This geographic pattern reflects local economies, with technology and high-skilled jobs concentrated in those regions. The state’s rural and agricultural counties attract far fewer college graduates.
California’s economy already depends heavily on immigrants. As the population ages, the demand for health care workers (including nurses) will increase, and despite recent layoffs, the technology sector is projected to be one of the fastest-growing sectors in the long term. The good news is that the flow of immigrants to the state seems to have increased since the first year of the pandemic. However, it remains to be seen if immigration returns to levels seen in the past.
Promisingly, the adult children of immigrants (i.e., second-generation adults) tend to be much more highly educated than their parents. Second-generation adults are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their parents’ generation (41% vs. 30%).
Furthermore, foreign-born students, including permanent residents and those on student visas, make up a larger share of postsecondary enrollment in California than in any other state. These students comprise 16% of undergraduate and 26% of graduate and professional school students, with many choosing fields of study that align with California’s need for highly educated workers, especially in fast-growing STEM jobs. Among California college students, 45% of engineering and 38% of computer and information sciences majors are foreign born.
Earlier, we examined what record-low birth rates and the tragic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on life expectancy mean for California’s population and future. Looking ahead, trends in immigration, as well as educational attainment among current immigrant families, are also likely to play a large role in determining the future growth of the state’s economy.