Immigrants' Job Prospects Are Best in Switzerland, America

Photograph by Hiroshi Higuchi/Getty Images

As far as being the land of opportunity, America isn’t looking good. Politicians dither on the status of millions of undocumented immigrants, and each week another billionaire reminds us that America is turning away the high-skilled immigrants most countries would fight for. Germany seems so much more enlightened, with its open borders and Blue Card program; in just the last few years it’s become the second-most popular migration destination.

America is still No. 1. Immigrating to a new country requires facing many different risks and, for most, the United States still offers the best shot at success, at least as defined by employment prospects. I used data from the OECD’s Migration Database to measure employment, for different education levels, in countries containing the most immigrants. One caveat: a low employment rate might also capture a generous welfare state that doesn’t require immigrants to work. But since a job tends to be necessary for economic and social mobility, employment rates are a good proxy. The table below shows employment rates for immigrants with less than a high school education.

It seems the best prospects for an uneducated immigrant are in Switzerland or the United States. In America, 64 percent of uneducated immigrants are employed, significantly more than natives with the same level of education (44 percent). In Spain, the poor economy is to blame: native workers are even less likely to work. In France, there are other forces at play: Nearly 57 percent of French natives are employed, compared to 51 percent of immigrants.

More education changes the picture significantly. An engineering PhD faces a completely different labor market than someone who didn’t finish high school. The figure below shows employment immigrants with at least an undergraduate degree.

Educated immigrants have much higher employment rates. Switzerland also offers them the best shot at work, followed by Germany. Surprisingly, educated immigrants in America have relatively low employment rates. A little more than 77 percent work, less than the 81 percent employment for well-educated natives.

By these measures, Switzerland is in fact the land of opportunity. But Switzerland takes much fewer immigrants, about one-tenth of what America takes in a year. It’s a higher percentage of the population, but far fewer in raw numbers. And most immigrants to Switzerland, more than 70 percent, come from other countries in Europe. Germany could also emerge as a contender some day, but for now it’s still relatively closed to non-Europeans. Almost all of the recent influx into Germany reflects that its economy is attracting immigrants from struggling parts of Europe. It’s not clear yet how well Switzerland and Germany could integrate a large, more diverse population.  In terms of global inclusiveness and employment prospects, America is still an immigrant’s best bet.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.