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Ability of Oregon Workers to Speak English Varies by Type of Job

Ability of Oregon Workers to Speak English Varies by Type of Job

by Felicia Bechtoldt

October 17, 2017

In Oregon, about 123,000 workers speak English less than “very well” according to the American Community Survey responses collected from 2011 to 2015. This represents 7 percent of all Oregon workers. This group includes workers that don’t speak English, speak English “not well,” and speak English “well.” About 157,000 workers (9%) speak another language and speak English “very well,” while about 1.5 million workers (84%) speak only English.

The ability to speak English influences a worker’s ability to succeed. It affects the employment status, work status, earnings and the occupations the workers are in. It also influences the ability to participate in civic life and interact with government and private sector providers, businesses, schools and emergency personnel.

For most immigrants in the U.S. and Oregon, English is not the native language. Many immigrants speak English when they arrive in the U.S., in particular if they come from countries where English is an official language, such as Canada, the U.K., India, the Philippines, or Kenya. Others learn the language through years of study prior to their arrival in the U.S. or while they reside in the U.S.

The share of workers by ability to speak English varies a lot by industry and occupation. The highest share of workers who speak English less than “very well” is in natural resources and mining industries with 28 percent (15,888 workers). This industry includes agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting and mining.

Other industries with a high share of workers that speak English less than “very well” are leisure and hospitality (12%, 21,148) and manufacturing (10%, 21,750). Government has the lowest share of workers that speak English less than “very well” (2%, 1,665). Other industries with a low share are financial activities; information; and education and health services. Just 3 percent of workers in each of these industries speak English less than “very well.”

For workers that speak only English, government (92%) and the information industry (91%) have the highest shares of only-English speakers. Natural resources and mining (62%) has the lowest share of only-English speakers.  

The importance of English skills varies across occupations. For example, proficiency in English is more important for teachers or lawyers than agricultural workers and carpenters. Therefore, the level of English proficiency could be a contributing factor of the occupational choice of a foreign-born worker.

Workers that speak English less than “very well” tend to be in occupations with lower education requirements. In the farming, fishing, and forestry occupational group, 44 percent of workers in Oregon (14,373) speak English less than “very well.” This occupational group includes agricultural workers; fishing and hunting workers; forest, conservation, and logging workers; and supervisors of farming, fishing, and forestry workers. Other occupational groups with high concentrations of workers that speak English less than “very well” include:

  • building, grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations (24%, 15,893), which include landscapers, janitors, and maids;
  • production occupations (17%, 18,349), which include butchers, bakers, assemblers, and welders among others; and
  • food preparation and serving related occupations (14%, 16,083), such as waitstaff, cooks, bartenders, and dishwashers.
Workers with a high level of proficiency in English are more likely to choose occupations they would like to be in. They are also more likely to be selected by employers for jobs that require more intensive use of English.

In Oregon, workers that speak another language and speak English “very well” are concentrated in occupations that have high and low education requirements. Computer and math, and healthcare support occupations each have 13 percent of workers that speak another language and speak English “very well.” Computer and math occupations include web developers, computer programmers, and statisticians. Healthcare support occupations include nurses’ aides, medical assistants and home health aides among others. Other occupational groups containing higher shares of workers that speak another language and speak English “very well” are:
  • architecture and engineering occupations (12%, 5,001), which include architects, engineers, drafters, and engineering technicians;
  • food preparation and serving related occupations (11%, 12,654); and
  • farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (10%, 3,371).
Workers that speak only English have the highest share of employment in legal occupations and protective service occupations with 94 percent each, followed by financial specialists (91%), healthcare practitioners and technical occupations (90%), office and administrative support occupations (90%), and business operations specialists (90%).

Earnings

Oregon workers that speak English less than “very well” are more likely to have lower earnings than their counterparts. More than three-quarters (78%) of workers that speak English less than “very well” earn less than $35,000 per year compared with 52 percent of only-English speakers and 59 percent of those who speak another language and speak English “very well.” Earnings include wages, salary income, and net income from self-employment.

Only 6 percent of those who speak English less than “very well” earn more than $65,000 annually compared with 21 percent of only-English speakers and 18 percent of those who speak another language and speak English “very well.”

English communication skills are critical to a worker’s success. For foreign-born workers, the ability to speak English enables occupational mobility and higher earnings. Occupations that require a high level of English skills have a small share of workers that speak English less than “very well.” Those that speak English less than “very well” have lower earnings than only-English speakers and those that speak a foreign language and speak English “very well.”