Race and Ethnic Diversity in Oregon’s Workforce

Race and Ethnic Diversity in Oregon’s Workforce

by Emily Starbuck

February 21, 2017

Historically, racial and ethnic diversity has not been Oregon’s strong suit. Portland ranks last in diversity out of the top 50 most populous metro areas in the U.S., with white residents making up 81 percent of its population as of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey (ACS). With the exception of Asian workers, people of color in Oregon’s workforce face higher unemployment rates and lower wages than white workers, and are employed in lower-paying industries.

Changing Demographics Led by Portland Metro

Though it is still predominantly white, Oregon’s population has started to diversify in recent years. From 2005 to 2015, the share of people of color in Oregon increased from 13 percent to 15 percent. The share in Oregon grew more quickly than nationwide over this 10-year span, to land at about half of the U.S. average of 27 percent. The share of Hispanic or Latino residents of any race in Oregon has increased more than any other racial or ethnic group, with a 45 percent increase in the past decade.

Despite being the least diverse large city in the U.S., the Portland metro area is the most diverse region in the state. Nineteen percent of the metro’s population are people of color. The Salem metro region has the highest proportion of Hispanic or Latino residents of any race, with 23 percent of residents identifying as Hispanic in 2015. The least diverse metro region of Oregon is the Bend-Redmond area, where less than 7 percent of residents are people of color.

The majority of foreign-born Oregon residents are white, with Asians as the second most common race at 28 percent. Two-thirds of Oregon’s Asian population are foreign-born. The share of Asian residents that are foreign-born is nearly twice that of Oregon’s Hispanic or Latino population. Unlike the overall racial makeup of the state, the demographics of the foreign-born population have remained nearly the same over the past decade.

Employment Status Varies by Race and Ethnicity

People of color in Oregon have higher labor force participation rates than white residents. As of the 2015 ACS, the white working age population had a labor force participation rate of 61 percent. American Indians were the only nonwhite group with a lower labor force participation rate. Those surveyed that identified as some other race not listed had the highest labor force participation rates, followed by the Hispanic or Latino and Black or African American workforce.

Unemployment also varies by race and ethnicity. All people of color with the exception of Asians had higher unemployment rates than the white workforce. This can perhaps be explained by their higher rates of labor force participation. Yet this explanation does not hold true for every racial group. Despite their low labor force participation, American Indians reported the highest unemployment rate in 2015.

Wage Disparity

Over the last decade, the wage disparity by race and ethnicity has remained fairly consistent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics (LEHD), Asian workers have seen their wages rise the most, followed by white workers. Black, American Indian, mixed-race, and Hispanic or Latino workers have seen little real wage growth since 2005, and currently hover between $35,000 and $40,000 annually – at least $10,000 less than white workers and $20,000 less than Asian workers.

Black workers have seen real wage growth of 1.5 percent from 2005 to 2015. This is below the average annual inflation rate of 2 percent, which means that black workers have less purchasing power now than they did in 2005. Other racial and ethnic groups have seen real wage growth of at least 5 percent. Asian workers have seen the most real wage growth at 23 percent, an increase of $11,458 in their annual average wages.

This wage disparity is due in part to the industries of employment for each racial and ethnic group. The largest industry of employment for all groups is education and health services, with an annual average wage of $48,247 in 2015. However, the breakdown of employment after this industry varies. Nineteen percent of Asian workers are employed in manufacturing, which has one of the highest annual average wages in the state. In contrast, the second largest industry of employment for black, American Indian, multiracial, and Hispanic or Latino workers is leisure and hospitality, which has the lowest annual average wages.

Educational attainment is also a factor. The 2015 ACS reported that 49 percent of Asian residents in Oregon have a bachelor’s degree or higher, the highest of any race or ethnicity. Typically, those with higher education qualify for higher-paying jobs, which also factors into the high annual average wages for Asian workers.


The majority of economic indicators are consistent for each racial and ethnic group. Asian workers in Oregon have higher rates of educational attainment and are employed in higher-paying industries, and as a result, have lower unemployment rates and higher wages. Since the majority of the Asian population in Oregon is foreign-born, at least some of these highly educated workers may be courted by our high-tech companies to immigrate and fill high-skill, high-wage positions in manufacturing. For example, Intel, Oregon’s largest employer, applied for the most H1B visas in 2015, followed by fellow tech companies Infosys and Wipro.

As Oregon continues to diversify its population, these patterns may change. Positive changes may depend on increasing access to education for people of color and creating pathways to employment in higher-wage fields.