Attitudes towards low and high-skilled immigration: the myth of rationality

A post-Brexit survey showed that the overwhelming majority of people would support the inflow of skilled workforce, but they would strictly limit low-skilled immigration. Unsurprisingly politicians now echo this argument. But allowing only skilled people in the country will increase competition and push down wages for the attractive jobs and lessen competition and increase wages for undesirable, low-skilled jobs. These arrangements would suggest a long term equilibrium, where high-skilled jobs are more likely to be done by migrants and low-skilled jobs by the indigenous workforce.

People seldom remain rational about the topic of immigration. Whilst the debate mostly focuses on whether and how much to open borders, attitudes towards the details of immigration are no more rational. Even moderate political parties now openly campaign for having some control on immigration. At the same time there is some understanding – even among those most antagonist to immigration – that some people should be allowed to immigrate. Brexit debates have frequently highlighted that need to further encourage the inflow of highly skilled labour but impose strict controls on low-skilled people. A recent survey in the aftermath of Brexit confirms that this is in tune with what the majority of the electorate wants.

The opinion is echoed by the allegedly more insightful voices as well. Lord Green of Deddington, the chairman of the think tank Migration Watch UK, said: “It is absolutely crucial that the Brexit negotiations should lead to a reduction in migration from the European Union […] This means cutting back on low skilled workers whose impact on our economy is at best neutral and who add very substantially to pressure on public services. One idea worth considering is work permits.”

On the face of it, these concerns seem legit. Mass migration of low-skilled workers have pushed down low-skilled wages and led to fewer jobs to low-skilled indigenous labour.

But it seems rather naïve to think that locking out low-skilled immigrants (whilst encouraging high-skilled ones) will solve this problem. I have always struggled with the logic of this preference for skilled labour – or the aversion to low-skilled immigrants. Having low-skilled migrants means that the indigenous labour force does not have to deal with low-skilled jobs. As a benefit, people have more time to do other things.

Just think intuitively: isn’t it great that our children do not have to do menial jobs? A survey by Fatherly shows that the Top 10 most favourite professions by American children are: athlete, doctor, teacher, vet, firefighter, scientist, astronaut, engineer, police, and “I don’t know”. Interestingly not many children want to be cleaners, or hospital janitors, or onion pickers. So why don’t parents celebrate the wonderful world of immigration where these jobs are done by a willing workforce other than their children.

And what about the economics? With a drop in low-skilled labour supply, the corresponding wages will increase making these jobs more attractive for the native work force. Moreover, at the same time allowing and encouraging high-skilled labour in the country means more competition for high-skilled jobs, thus lower wages, which will eventually make these jobs and skills relatively less attractive for the indigenous population. Not forgetting of course the fact that immigrants on average are more motivated than the indigenous population, making competition for high-skilled jobs even fiercer.

As a result the wage gap between high and low skilled labour is likely to drop. Not only that but these arrangements would suggest a long term equilibrium, where high-skilled jobs are more likely to be done by migrants and low-skilled jobs by locals.

Of course the dynamics of dropping high-skill wages might boost businesses that require skilled labour, which would be great for the economy – so keeping borders open for high-skilled labour is good in the long-run. But with increasing low-skilled wages, the affected businesses will resort to cheaper alternatives (such as driverless cars instead of hiring drivers, or self-checkout machines instead of shop assistants, or package delivering drones instead of delivery men), reducing the number of low-skilled jobs and taking us all back to square one where people worried about the lack of jobs for indigenous low-skilled workers.

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