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

by Sarah Cunningham

April 15, 2020

In Oregon, about 127,000 workers speak English less than “very well” according to the American Community Survey responses collected from 2014 to 2018. This represents 7 percent of all Oregon workers. This group includes workers who don’t speak English, speak English “not well,” and speak English “well.” About 188,000 workers (10%) speak another language and speak English “very well,” while about 1.9 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 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 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 (16,646 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 (11%, 21,400 workers) and manufacturing (10%, 21,718). Government and the information industry have the lowest shares of workers (2%) that speak English less than “very well.” Other industries with a lower share are financial activities 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 and the information industry have the highest shares of only-English speakers (91% and 90%, respectively). Natural resources and mining (61%) 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 carpenters and agricultural workers. 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, nearly half of Oregon’s workers (45% or 15,391 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 (22%, 15,003), which includes landscapers, janitors and maids;
  • production (16%, 17,485), which includes butchers, bakers, assemblers, and welders among others; and
  • food preparation and serving (13%, 15,510), such as wait staff, cooks, bartenders, and dishwashers.
Workers witha  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. 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 and computer and math occupations have 14 percent of workers (6,139 and 8,406 workers, respectively) that speak another language and speak English “very well.” Healthcare support (10,268); farming, fishing, and forestry (4,560); and life, physical, and social science occupations (2,700) each employ 13 percent of workers fluent in English and another language.

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

Earnings

Oregon workers that speak English less than “very well” are more likely to have lower earnings than their counterparts. Roughly seven out of 10 (71%) workers that speak English less than “very well” earn less than $35,000 per year compared with 47 percent of only-English speakers and 54 percent of those who speak a foreign language and speak English “very well.” Earnings include wages, salary income, and net income from self-employment.
Only 8 percent of those who speak English less than “very well” earn at least $65,000 annually, compared with 25 percent of only-English speakers and 21 percent of those who speak a foreign 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.”

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