Among the Working-Age in Tennessee, All Employment Gains Since 2007 Have Gone to Immigrants

By Steven A. Camarota on June 26, 2017

Even though the election is more than a year away, the issue of immigration has come up repeatedly in the Tennessee governor's race. To put this debate into context, the Center for Immigration Studies has analyzed recent government data on employment in the state. The analysis shows that immigrants (legal and illegal) accounted for all of the net increase in the number of working-age (16 to 65) people holding a job in Tennessee between the first quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2017 — even though the native-born accounted for 77 percent of growth among the total working-age population. Prior analysis indicates that 30 percent to 40 percent of immigrants in Tennessee are in the country illegally. Of the 229,000 immigrants in the state working, 70,000 to 90,000 are likely to be illegal immigrants.

Among the findings:

  • There were 47,000 more working-age (16 to 65) immigrants (legal and illegal) holding a job in Tennessee in the first quarter of 2017 than in the same quarter in 2007. The same data also shows 16,000 fewer working-age native-born Americans in the state working over the same time.
  • The fact that all of the long-term net gain in employment among the working-age went to immigrants is striking because natives accounted for 77 percent of the increase in the total working-age (16-65) population in the state.
  • There were 224,000 more working-age natives in Tennessee in 2017 than in 2007, yet 16,000 fewer of them were actually working. In short, the number of potential native-born workers in the state grew significantly, but the number actually working was lower in 2017 than in 2007.
  • The official unemployment rate in Tennessee is low because it only includes those who have looked for a job in the last four weeks prior to the survey. It does not count those have given up looking for work and have dropped out of the labor force entirely.
  • The labor force participation rate, the share of working-age natives working or looking for work, has not returned to pre-recession levels in Tennessee. In 2007, 75 percent of working-age natives were in the labor force; in 2017 it was 70 percent.
  • The number of working-age natives not in the labor force was nearly 1.2 million in the first quarter of 2017 in the state, a quarter of a million more than in 2007. There were also 64,000 immigrants not in the labor force. There would appear to be an enormous pool of unutilized labor in the state for employers to draw upon.
  • Older natives in Tennessee did make some employment gains. In 2017 there were 30,000 more native-born Tennesseans over the age of 65 working than in 2007. It is worth adding that there are relatively few immigrants over age 65 in the state, so older Tennessean face much less job competition from immigrants than those under age 65.


This blog post focuses on the first quarter of 2007, which was before the Great Recession, and the first quarter of 2017, the most recent quarterly data available. Comparing the same quarter helps control for seasonality. This analysis is based on the public-use files of the "household survey", officially known as the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS is the nation's primary source of information on the labor market. The survey asks respondents about citizenship and place of birth. Immigrants or the foreign-born (legal and illegal) are individuals who were not U.S. citizens at birth.

Many jobs are created and lost each quarter and many workers change jobs as well. But the number of people employed reflects the net effect of these changes. Between 2007 and 2017, many jobs were taken and lost by natives and immigrants in Tennessee. The end result of this churn shows that all of the net gain in employment went to immigrants over this time period. If we look at more recent years (2015 to 2017) we do see some employment gains for working-age natives. However, the number of working-age natives employed is still not back to 2007 levels and the modest gains have only just kept pace with population growth among the native-born. As a result, the labor force participation rate has not improved; it was 70.1 percent in 2015 and 70 percent in 2017.

This analysis focuses on those 16 to 65 so that we can examine the labor force participation rate (share working or looking for work) and employment rate (share working) of native-born Americans. Labor force participation is less sensitive to the business cycle than is the often-cited unemployment rate. The unemployed are only those who report that they have looked for a job in the four weeks prior to the survey.

Tennesse Employment Data, 2007 and 2017 (in thousands)

  2007 2017 Change
Natives employed (16-65) 2,628 2,612 -16
Natives unemployed (16-65) 152 139 -13
Natives not in the labor force (16-65) 927 1,180 253
Total native population 16-65 3,707 3,931 224
Native labor force participation rate 75% 70% -5%
Immigrants employed (16-65) 182 229 47
Immigrants unemployed (16-65) 4 7 3
Immigrants not in the labor force (16-65) 47 64 17
Total Immigrant population (16-65) 233 300 67
Immigrant labor force participation rate 80% 79% -1%
Total natives employed all ages 2,742 2,756 14
Total immigrants employed all ages 187 234 47

Soruce: Public-use files of the Current Population Survey from the first quarter of 2007 and 2017.
Labor force particapation is the share of working age people (16 to 65) working or looking for work.