Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Your Next Promotion... Courtesy of Immigration

John Tierney is good enough to explain, using manicurists as his paradigm, how immigration leads to better jobs for English-speaking Americans:
Some Americans gave up their licenses, but the turnover wasn't much higher than it had been before the Vietnamese arrived. The chief effect of the competition was to discourage young Americans from entering the business, so over time the number of American manicurists dwindled.

"The Vietnamese didn't so much displace Americans as gradually replace them," Krynski says. "Some Americans stayed in the business in upscale salons, and others probably went into other occupations offering higher wages, like being a hairdresser."
Tierney himself prefers the upscale spas, comparing his experience getting a manicure from a Vietnamese immigrant who charged him $8, and a Beverly Hills manicurist who charges $150 for a house call.
Nguyen couldn't compete with Harris in ambience or conversation - I barely got her to utter her name. Harris spent half an hour working on my right hand, gently using compresses infused with tangerine and peppermint as well as a hazelnut and menthol scrub. Nguyen did my left hand in 10 minutes without explaining what she was doing.
(I understand in his next column he shares his experience test driving a Lincoln Navigator and a Toyota Yaris, and how surprised he is that the Navigator was more luxurious.)

A few days ago, Tierney suggested that we need immigrants to staff the assisted living centers and nursing homes of the future - "As the population ages, it’s going to get harder to find young people to do those jobs unless the Republicans in the House go along with the Senate’s plan to add legal immigrants". Not a peep, though, about how many people who would otherwise have become nursing home aides have upgraded their career plans to nurse, doctor, or administrator.

I'm not going to argue that workers in relatively low-skill, low-wage service jobs can't find alternatives, and perhaps can even take an extra semester or two at beauty school (or the equivalent) to become licensed to both do nails and cut hair. I also think Tierney's argument is a red herring, as the real risk to workers is not so much the loss of jobs or increased competition for jobs which must be performed by local workers, but the loss of jobs which can now be performed in other nations. When a worker who is supporting her family on a middle class income has her position eliminated, or when he is told that his wages are being slashed as part of his employer's reorganization, the possibility of "retraining" as a hairdresser or computer technician has limited appeal - they would become entry level workers competing with a pool of much younger, equally qualified job candidates.

These aren't issues that we can easily address, nor are they trends we can easily reverse. The more reactionary proposals, such as retreating from globalization or closing the borders to immigration, would likely do more harm than good. But to the extent that we can do something, I don't think it is particularly helpful to pretend that the well-documented divergence of wealth in this country does not result, at least in part, from the loss of job and income opportunity for ordinary workers. Or, for that matter, to pretend that there is not a problem because California manicurists seem to have done okay for themselves.

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