, Volume 54, Issue 2, pp 571–602 | Cite as

Economic Assimilation and Skill Acquisition: Evidence From the Occupational Sorting of Childhood Immigrants

  • Marigee Bacolod
  • Marcos A. RangelEmail author


We study the economic assimilation of childhood immigrants to the United States. The linguistic distance between English and the predominant language in one’s country of birth interacted with age at arrival is shown to be closely connected to occupational sorting in adulthood. By applying big-data techniques to occupations’ detailed skill requirements, we provide evidence that childhood immigrants from English-distant countries who arrived after the primary school years reveal comparative advantages in tasks distinct from those for which (close to) Anglophone immigrants are better suited. Meanwhile, those who arrive at younger ages specialize in a bundle of skills very similar to that supplied by observationally equivalent workers. These patterns emerge even after we net out the effects of formal education. Such findings are compatible with the existence of different degrees of complementarity between relative English-learning potential at arrival and the acquisition of multiple capabilities demanded in the U.S. labor market (math/logic, socioemotional, physical, and communication skills). Consistent with the investment-complementarity argument, we show that linguistic distance and age at arrival also play a significant role on the choice of college major within this population.


Immigration Assimilation Skills English Specialization 



We are grateful to Ingo Isphording and Sebastian Otten for sharing their data of the Levenshtein linguistic-distance measure. Sections of the analysis were performed while Rangel was a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Program in Latin American Studies. He is thankful for their hospitality. We would also like to thank participants of the All-California Labor Economics Conference, Southern Economic Association meetings, Population Association of America meetings, and workshops at Duke University for helpful comments. Thanks also to Bernardo Blum, Charles Clotfelter, Elizabeth Frankenberg, and anonymous referees for detailed and insightful suggestions. All remaining errors are our own. The views expressed herein are our own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Supplementary material

13524_2017_558_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (478 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 478 kb)


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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of Business and Public PolicyNaval Postgraduate SchoolMontereyUSA
  2. 2.Sanford School of Public PolicyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Bureau for Research and the Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD)DurhamUSA

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