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

by Sarah Cunningham

December 2, 2021

In Oregon, about 126,000 workers speak English less than “very well” according to the American Community Survey responses collected from 2015 to 2019. This represents 6% of all Oregon workers. This group, otherwise known as workers with limited English speaking proficiency, includes workers who don’t speak English, speak English “not well,” and speak English “well.” About 200,000 workers (10%) speak another language and speak English “very well,” while about 1.7 million workers (84%) speak only English.

The ability to speak English influences a worker’s ability to succeed. It affects the industries, and the occupations the workers are in as well as their earnings. It influences the ability to participate in civic life and interact with government and private-sector service providers, businesses, schools, and emergency personnel.

For most immigrants in the U.S. and Oregon, English is not their 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 or while they reside in the U.S.

Industries

The share of workers by ability to speak English varies a lot by industry. The industry with the highest share of workers who speak English less than “very well” is in the natural resources and mining industry with 25% (15,213 workers) of all workers having limited English speaking proficiency. 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 (11%, 21,106 workers) and manufacturing (10%, 22,704). Government and the information industry have the lowest shares of workers (2%) that speak English less than “very well.” Other industries with a relatively low share are financial activities and education and health services. Just 3% of workers in each of these industries speak English less than “very well.”

Government and the information industry have the highest shares of only-English speakers, with 90% of their workforces consisting of those who speak English alone. Natural resources and mining (64%) has the lowest share of only-English speakers.  

Occupations, Education, and Earnings

The importance of English skills varies across occupations. For example, proficiency in English is more important for teachers or lawyers than for carpenters or agricultural workers. Therefore, the level of English proficiency is one contributing factor of the occupational choice of a foreign-born worker. Workers with higher levels of English speaking proficiency are more likely to be selected by employers for jobs that require more intensive or precise use of English.

Another contributing factor is educational attainment. Forty-three percent of workers age 25 and older that speak English less than “very well” in Oregon have less than a high school diploma or equivalent compared with 9% of workers that speak English “very well” and 3% of those that speak only English. Twenty-seven percent of workers that speak English less than “very well” have at least some college, compared with 66% of those that speak English “very well” and 68% of those that speak only English. The level of educational attainment and English skills workers have effect the occupational choices workers can make as well as the likelihood that they will be selected by employers for jobs that require certain levels of educational attainment or proficiency in English. Because of this, workers with higher levels of educational attainment that speak English less than “very well” may face challenges obtaining work that aligns with their skill sets.

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, four out of 10 workers in Oregon (42% or 14,042 workers) speak English less than “very well.” This occupational group includes agricultural workers; fishing and hunting workers; and forest, conservation, and logging workers. Other occupations with high concentrations of workers that speak English less than “very well” are in:

  • building, grounds cleaning and maintenance (21%, 14,537), which includes landscapers, janitors and maids;
  • production (16%, 18,420), which includes butchers, bakers, assemblers, and welders among others; and
  • food preparation and serving (13%, 15,567), such as wait staff, cooks, bartenders, and dishwashers.
  • construction and extraction (12%, 10,625), such as carpenters, electricians, general laborers, and roofers.
In Oregon, workers that speak another language and speak English “very well” are concentrated in occupations that have high and low education requirements. Occupations in architecture and engineering; computer and math; healthcare support; farming, fishing and forestry; and life, physical, and social science have high concentrations of workers that speak a foreign language and speak English “very well.” Architecture and engineering has 15% of workers (6,955) that speak another language and speak English “very well” compared with 10% across all occupations. Computer and math (8,954); farming, fishing, and forestry (4,634); and life, physical, and social science occupations (2,970) each employ 14% of workers who speak English very well in addition to another language.

Workers that speak only English have the highest share of employment in legal occupations at 93%, followed by protective service (91%) and business and financial operations (89%). Protective service occupations include law enforcement workers and firefighting and prevention workers.

The occupations workers are concentrated in reflect their earnings, as occupations that require higher levels of education also tend to pay more. Oregon workers that speak English less than “very well” have lower median earnings than their counterparts. From 2015 to 2019, the median wage for Oregon’s full-time, year-round workers who speak English less than “very well” was $31,300. For those that speak another language and speak English “very well”, the median wage was $45,000. Those that speak only English had a median wage of $50,900 during the same period. 

Additional Info for English Language Learners and Employers

English communication skills are critical to a worker’s success. For foreign-born workers in Oregon, the ability to speak English enables continuing education and occupational mobility, which can lead to 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 another language and speak English “very well.”

For those looking to improve their English language skills, many of Oregon’s 17 community colleges offer low cost English language courses to community members during the morning or evening. These courses help prepare speakers of other languages for using English in the workplace and as well as continuing their educations from the GED program through college.

Employers looking to support workers with lower levels of English proficiency can employ strategies such as providing training materials and other vital information in multiple languages, including pictures along with workplace notices and signs, and hiring multilingual staff who can act as interpreters or translators where appropriate. Employers that sponsor employer-led English Language Learning programs or schedule workers learning English around their school schedules may see increased hiring, retention, or promotion among these groups.

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