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Immigration, skill mix, and the choice of technique

  • Ethan Lewis

Using detailed plant-level data from the 1988 and 1993 Surveys of Manufacturing Technology, this paper examines the impact of skill mix in U.S. local labor markets on the use and adoption of automation technologies in manufacturing. The level of automation differs widely across U.S. metropolitan areas. In both 1988 and 1993, in markets with a higher relative availability of less skilled labor, comparable plants – even plants in the same narrow (4-digit SIC) industries – used systematically less automation. Moreover, between 1988 and 1993 plants in areas experiencing faster less-skilled relative labor supply growth adopted automation technology more slowly, both overall and relative to expectations, and even de-adoption was not uncommon. This relationship is stronger when examining an arguably exogenous component of local less-skilled labor supply derived from historical regional settlement patterns of immigrants from different parts of the world. ; These results have implications for two long-standing puzzles in economics. First, they potentially explain why research has repeatedly found that immigration has little impact on the wages of competing native-born workers at the local level. It might be that the technologies of local firms – rather than the wages that they offer – respond to changes in local skill mix associated with immigration. A modified two-sector model demonstrates this theoretical possibility. Second, the results raise doubts about the extent to which the spread of new technologies have raised demand for skills, one frequently forwarded hypothesis for the cause of rising wage inequality in the United States. Causality appears to at least partly run in the opposite direction, where skill supply drives the spread of skill-complementary technology.

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Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia in its series Working Papers with number 05-8.

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Date of creation: 2005
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedpwp:05-8
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