Immigrant Impact on the American Pharmaceutical Industry

by Anne Reynolds

Immigrant Impact on the American Pharmaceutical Industry
Percentage of American-born and Immigrant Workers in Areas of Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

The Institute for Immigration Research is quantifying, documenting, and telling the story about the economic contributions of immigrants in a variety of American industries. A series of research briefs, each focusing on a particular area of the economy, are illustrating the benefits that people from outside the U.S. bring to their new home.

Last week, the institute released the first of these briefs, which describes the extent to which the pharmaceutical industry in the United States relies on immigrant labor. The study looked at jobs at all levels, including medical/life scientists, chemical technicians, pharmacists, and those who support the production and distribution of pharmaceutical products.

The research showed that, although 13 percent of the United States’ population is foreign-born, 17 percent of the employed labor force in the pharmaceutical industry came to the U.S. from outside the country. At the higher-skilled occupations in the industry, the immigrant contribution is even greater, comprising 33 percent of the total research and development pharmaceutical workforce and more than 40 percent of the scientists.

The study identified the countries of origin for these workers, noting that India, China, Mexico, the Philippines, South America, the West Indies, Africa, Vietnam, Central America, and Eastern Europe account for 74% of the immigrant population in the industry.

Many of these countries are also among the emergent pharmaceutical producing countries that are the fastest growing: China, Egypt, India, Mexico, and Vietnam each show an annual growth of U.S. $250M or more. From 2006 to 2011, the U.S. share of the global pharmaceutical market declined from 41 percent to 34 percent, while the emerging nations’ share grew from 14 to 20 percent.

What does this mean? Two important points emerge, according to institute director James Witte. “Given that success in the pharmaceutical industry is so dependent on research,” he says, “it is truly striking how much research and development labor is provided by immigrants.” 

Moreover, he observes that because some of the origin countries of many of these workers coincide with the fastest growing pharmaceutical manufacturing countries, the United States may well find that these emerging markets will present a significant source of competition for the talents and skills represented by the workers. This situation highlights the urgency owed immigration reform. Witte adds, “We need to strengthen the U.S. educational system, particularly in math and the sciences. But that’s a long term issue. In the short term, drawing on a talented pool of immigrant workers in industries such as pharmaceuticals will buy us the time to maintain our global economic competitiveness in the long run.”

For questions on the study, please contact the institute at or at 703-993-2993.