Do Immigrants Work Harder? If So Why?

Naturalization Ceremony in Frederick

A team I work with at my employer is hiring a project manager. They included me as one of the interviewers. Interestingly, after the initial phone screens the three final candidates invited over for face-to-face interviews are all immigrants.

They don’t speak perfect English. Some started in fields completely different than the field my employer is in. Over time, they accumulated experience and achievements. Now they are all well qualified for the position.

I’m not the hiring manager. So I don’t know what the position pays. Judging from the grade level, I would say the job pays six figures. You would think immigrants don’t possess a special advantage when it comes to project management. In fact they may come at a disadvantage for not having been born and educated in this country.

What makes these immigrants stand out to become top candidates? Is it because they work harder?

I Googled "immigrants work harder" and I got this quote from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg on the first hit:

"I don’t think there’s any question, it’s the immigrants who are willing to work harder, on average," said the mayor of New York City, whose population is more than a third foreign-born. "Plenty of native-born Americans, tenth-generation here, that work very hard. So I’m not dissing everybody. But on balance, it’s no question that people come here, and they come here because they want to live the great American dream, and they don’t think it’s just going to be given to them or that they deserve it. They come with the ethic of wanting to work for it."

* Source: They work harder: Bloomberg’s bottom-line immigration reform advocacy, Capital

I would think everybody wants to live the great American dream and nobody thinks it’s just going to be given to them or that they deserve it, not just immigrants.

Back in July, I heard someone say in a Marketplace Money radio program on NPR that immigrants work harder because there is no/less social safety net in their countries. They must work hard or else they can’t live. Putting the political angle aside, there is some truth to it. When I go to a developing country, I see people there work very hard, much harder than people here.

I think immigrants work harder because of self-selection. Those who work harder self-selected to be immigrants (I’m talking about people who immigrated as an adult). Even for those who moved as a child to a different country with their parents, their parents self-selected to be immigrants. That must also have an effect on the children.

Working hard is pretty much the only choice for immigrants. Working hard does pay off. It doesn’t necessarily make you rich but it isn’t too difficult to get into a comfortable life. People born and educated in this country have all the advantages over immigrants. If immigrants can become top candidates for six-figure jobs, so can the natives.

Are you an immigrant or from an immigrant family? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a disproportionate number of readers are. If you aren’t one yourself, do you know or work with immigrants? Do you think immigrants work harder? If so, why?

[Photo credit: Flickr user MDGovpics]

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  1. KD says

    There are all kinds of immigrants who come to the US. Let us consider legal immigrants. In the fiscal year 2011, the US admitted 1,062,040 on a permanent basis. Of these, employment based were only 139,339 including the family members of the applicants. The actual workers admitted were 10,665 in the first (priority) and 33,577 in the second (advanced degree) category and 15,556 in skilled and needed unskilled workers. So to be one of these you need to be extremely desired and talented so that the employer would sponsor you. Source:

    The US work force is over 110 million workers. So you can see the hue and cry over foreigners taking away jobs being very valid (end sarcasm). Yes, there are many temporary workers who come on visa. But that number may be 1 million if I stretch it and plus their spouses can’t work.

    Ok now to your question, do immigrants work harder? I would say there is no certain answer. The type of person that chooses to come to the US is truly cream of the cream and in addition they have a drive to avail all the wonderful opportunities that the US gives its citizens. Employment-based Legal Immigrants are certainly more hungry for success and certainly value education over everything else.

    PS: Full disclosure. I am an applicant for green-card in the employment based advanced degree category. Because of country quotas my wait time is another six to seven years and I have been in the US for 10 years already. No need to feel sorry for me. I am willing to work hard for it. 😉

  2. Carl says

    Americans in general have become lazy and fat. When one rises to power, they become complacent. That’s just how it is.

    Think of Rocky Balboa at the beginning of Rocky 3. America is Rocky. The immigrants are Clubber Lang. While Rocky is taking pictures of himself and slacking off, Clubber is hitting the punching bag 12 hours a day, getting stronger and stronger. Except in this movie, Americans aren’t suddenly going to realize how fat and out of shape they’ve become until it’s too late.

    By the way, not being “educated” in this country is an advantage, my friend.

  3. Clint Logan says

    I’m a native born retired engineer. There is no question in my mind that immigrants work harder. I can think of three examples to relate.

    When recruiting at University of California at Davis, I interviewed a Masters graduate who had made his way to the U.S. from Vietnam at the age of 16. With no family support and no government aid he was getting his masters degree at the age of 22.

    I consulted for a very small business that invented medical devices. The owner asked me to sit in on a meeting with another small business to discuss a possible collaboration. At one point I looked around the table and realized that all but two of these people had PhD’s and I was the only non-immigrant. Turkey, Bosnia and Mexico were all represented.

    A good friend of mine, while native born, was born to immigrant Mexican farm workers. He toiled in the fields with his family but acquired a thirst for education from his parents. He got an advanced engineering degree. His real goal in life was to become an astronaut. He applied 11 times before he made it. After each rejection, he assessed what he could do to improve his chances. He learned to fly. He studied Russian. He got a civilian job with NASA. He flew Discovery to the International Space Station. Now he is a candidate for US Congress in California’s 10 Congressional District.

    People such as this are the fuel that powers our great Nation. The lazy stay put. The motivated come to America.

  4. Lucy says

    Yes and No. Just check out the number of immigrants milking the system , being on food stamps, using the program to purchase items not authorized, getting free medical care, it is too long to mention, while our tax money is paying for them. I am a Russian immigrant , came here 21 years ago, and yes I worked very hard to get where i am today, i worked at 3 fast food restaurants at one time, working 18 hours a day, now i own one of the biggest prepaid telecom carriers in the country. Most immigrants on welfare are Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Africans.

  5. serbeer says

    Yes. Yes. And Yes.
    Because of dual effect of self-selection and lack of safety net early on, agree. Also because in some countries secondary (and sometimes even higher education, depending on school) is vastly superior to that of US, so emigrants from such countries and their kids are better prepared than US peers and gain admissions to top schools as a result. Not just due to academic curriculum: in the country I came from secondary schools were all open on Saturday and only Sunday was a day off for pupils. So there is 15% more time of class time right there.

    When I was taking math portion of GRE, I was simply SHOCKED by the level of questions: the most complicated ones required solving quadratic equations! And that for admission to graduate level study???? Quadratic equations are taught in middle school where I am originally from (now that said I did pretty poorly on verbal portion so was glad math and logic parts allowed me to make up for it…)

  6. UC says

    Yes, I am a potential immigrant (I say potential because I’m in the same situation as KD above). The self selection logic definitely holds true. It takes a lot of effort to immigrate to the US so anyone who has done this is already working hard and is resourceful. In addition if they are from India or China and working in STEM they are also probably the cream of their country as far as talent and education goes. Education in these countries is intensely competitive so if you’ve survived that and in addition made it to the US you have to be pretty good. As someone else mentions the math in the GRE is ridiculously easy. Most people I know that took it in India only studied for the verbal portion and did really need to study the math.

  7. Harry @ PF Pro says

    Wow I’m glad to see all your readers are so educated. The definitive answer is yes and I think anyone who says no has not worked in a while, maybe ever?? There are definitely some hard working Americans but there’s no question on average, people born here take things for granted. That is human nature, I take things for granted..

    People who are born in poorer countries have to work harder and they want the life we live and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. They’ll work for less and do more, who wouldn’t want to hire someone like that? They have taken over a lot of unskilled labor type jobs but they are actually starting to creep in on skilled labor. I work at an engineering company and when I need help who do you think I go to on average??

  8. Wai Yip Tung says

    I’m an immigrant myself. I don’t think we should make a blanket statement to say one group work harder than the other unless it is backed by statistics. That say clearly there are plenty of anecdotal and personal experience of industrious immigrants.

    Self-selection is one explanation. I mean emigration is a great life event. You are break away from the comfort of home and familiar tradition to go to a different environment. That alone requires certain fortitude.

    Another point is perhaps US is a great place for hard working people. Many people might have great skill and great ethic. But perhaps their home country’s economy do not demand that skill or perhaps there are other factors like corruptions that discourage people from really working hard. When they find their skill is valued in US they find it a great environment to apply themselves fully.

  9. Kenneth says

    People, who are aiming to work in other countries such as America, know the difficulty of earning due to their experience in their homelands. A lot of these people also know the difficulty of finding a well paying job. I think this is the reason why immigrants are so motivated to work hard. They know that they have been given a great opportunity and they are cherishing the experience.

  10. Grant says

    You state that you see people working harder in other countries. What country are you thinking of? I have yet to travel to any country where people work harder than in the US. Certainly not South America or Europe. What I observe is that people work fewer hours, fewer days, and less hard than Americans everywhere I go. Has all your travel been in Japan?

    I’m not sure why you think the social safety net is stronger in America either. Every country that is even close to comparable has a stronger safety net and more socialism. Non comparable (third world) countries also tend to be very socialist and in many of them the required income to get by (in terms of hours worked) is shockingly low.

    Setting aside the question of whether immigrants work harder or why, some of the statements here seem very wrong to me.

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