The manicure menace

In theory, hordes of immigrants are a problem because they can take lots of jobs and drive down wages. In practice, though, that's not what economists find when they look at wages and unemployment rates in cities that attract large numbers of immigrants, says John Tierney of the New York Times.

An analysis of the nail-salon business in California makes an especially tidy case. Because the state keeps track of all licensed manicurists, economists Kathy Krynski, Maya Federman and David Harrington were able to see what happened to American workers when tens of thousands of Vietnamese entered the business during the past two decades.

The economists concluded that:

  • The industry turnover wasn't much higher than it had been before the Vietnamese arrived, indicating that the immigrants didn't so much displace Americans as gradually replace them

  • Immigrants didn't simply fill existing jobs; they created more. For every two fewer Americans in the business, there were five new Vietnamese manicurists.

  • They helped transform the business not only with their workers but also with time-saving innovations like electric tools for shaping nails.

    In addition, Americans have been able to adjust by moving into higher income occupations within the industry, such as hairstyling, and seeking more lucrative jobs at upscale salons, where knowing English is a high priority.

    "If you can speak English, it's easy to find a job at an elite shop," says Traci Harris, a salon owner and manicurist. "American manicurists are a hot commodity. My clients want to have a conversation."

    Source: John Tierney, The Manicure Menace, The New York Times, May 30, 2006

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    For more on Immigration:

    FMF Policy Bulletin/13 June 2006
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