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Americans are feeling better about immigrants' economic effect — but Republicans aren't, survey shows

At a time of rising populist resentment over globalization, Americans largely agree that foreign trade is costing U.S. jobs, but they also hold an increasingly positive view about the value of immigrants to the economy.

In a new study by the Pew Research Center, eight out of 10 adults regarded increased outsourcing of jobs overseas and the growth of imports of foreign-made goods as harmful to U.S. workers.

By comparison, only about half of the people surveyed saw automation as hurtful — even though many economists believe new technologies and the mechanization of work have led to as many job losses as imbalanced trade.  

The public’s widespread mistrust of trade has been seized upon by GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign, and pushed Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, to reverse her support for the pending U.S.-led trade deal with other Pacific Rim nations.  

But Americans in general appear less convinced about Trump’s tough stance against immigration, his signature issue.

Pew’s study, released Thursday, found people in the U.S. have a much more favorable attitude about the impact of immigrants to the economy than before.

A decade ago, 55% of all adults surveyed by Pew felt that the growing number of immigrants working in the U.S. was hurting American workers overall; only 28% said immigration helped.

But this year, the view on this issue was split: 45% said the impact of foreign-born workers was harmful overall, while 42% said immigrants were positive for U.S. workers.

The more-favorable attitude toward immigration was seen across the board — with some of the biggest changes involving black workers, Democrats and those with less than a high school education.

The one exception? A greater share of Republicans today, some 67%, saw immigration as hurting U.S. workers, compared with 61% a decade ago.  

By comparison, only 30% of Democrats in the Pew survey considered immigration as harmful to workers, down from 54% who held that view in 2006. 

The Pew study, which included a wide range of issues about American jobs, did not seek to explain why people’s views on immigration may have changed. Pew’s survey did not distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. 

Kim Parker, Pew’s director of social trends research, said softening attitudes toward immigrants in the country illegally could be one factor behind the change. A separate Pew study last August found that seven out of 10 Americans believed immigrants here illegally filled jobs that U.S. citizens did not want.

American attitudes toward immigration have tended to shift with the economic times and people’s perceptions of their own job security. Reflecting today’s low unemployment rate and sharp reduction in layoffs in recent years, most people surveyed by Pew did not see a big threat to their jobs in the near term: 60% of employed workers said it is not at all likely that they will lose their job or be laid off in the next 12 months.

And while many in the U.S. do not see good jobs available in their communities, they are generally upbeat about their standard of living and the prospects for the next generation.

A majority of Americans think they have it as good or better than their parents, and, in contrast to the popular perception of widespread gloom, most believe their children will meet or exceed their own standard of living as well.

Among other findings in the Pew study, which sought to understand how people are responding to the challenges of the shifting employment landscape, a majority of adults in the labor force feel it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life to keep up with changes in the workplace.

Though technical ability is increasingly seen as vital in today’s economy, people viewed interpersonal skills, critical thinking and good writing and communications as the most important skills for doing their jobs. Neither colleges nor employers, Pew’s study suggested, have done enough to prepare people for the changing job requirements and for what it is needed to advance in their careers.

Although the share of adults 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher has never been greater — rising to 33% last year from 17% in 1980 — only 16% of those polled by Pew thought a four-year degree prepared students “very well” for a good-paying job.

So even though workers generally feel secure in their jobs, 35% of them — including 27% of adults with at least a four-year degree — don’t think they have the education and training to get ahead in their current positions.

One encouraging take-away from the Pew study is that workers aren’t sitting on their hands: Seven in 10 adults say “a lot” of responsibility falls on individuals to make sure that they have the rights skills and education to succeed in today’s economy. And 45% of employed adults have taken a class or undertaken extra training for their jobs in the last year, about half at the behest of their employer.

Also, despite their concerns about good jobs and the lagging wages, there was a relatively high level of worker contentment about their jobs. Nearly half of American workers say they are very satisfied with their current job, while an additional three in 10 say they are somewhat satisfied.

The Pew report, issued in association with the Markle Foundation, was based on an analysis of Department of Labor and the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey data, and a national survey of more than 5,000 adults conducted between May 25 and June 29. The margin of sampling error for the survey was plus or minus 3.8%.

don.lee@latimes.com

Follow me at @dleelatimes

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