A sociologist’s look at what our work says about us, historically and today

By C.N. Le, Asian Nation


Editor’s Note: Clicking internal links in this article opens a new browser window to illustrative pages or footnotes hosted on Asian-Nation.org, where the articles originally appeared.


Work, employment, and occupational mobility have been prominent features of the history of Asian American communities ever since they first arrived in the U.S. In fact, the fundamental reason why the majority of Asians first immigrated to America was to find work and earning a living to support themselves and their families. To this day, work remains an important part of life for Asian Americans and the reason why so many Asians continue to immigrate to the U.S.


Self-Employment Then and Now

In the early era of Asian American history, the Gold Rush was one of the strongest pull factors that led many Chinese to come to the U.S. to find their fortune and return home rich and wealthy. In addition, many Chinese (and later other Asian groups as well) also came to Hawai’i as contract laborers to work in sugarcane plantations. On the mainland, Chinese also worked as small merchants, domestics, farmers, grocers, and starting in 1865, as railroad workers on the famous Transcontinental Railroad project.

However, the anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese nativist movement of the late 1800s, best represented by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, forced the Chinese to retreat into their own isolated communities as a matter of survival. Inside these early Chinatowns, the tradition of small business ownership developed as many Chinese provided services to other Chinese and increasingly, to non-Chinese, such as restaurants, laundry, and merchandise retailers.

The phenomenon of self-employment has been a prominent mode of work for many Asian Americans, starting with the first Asian immigrants into the U.S. and continuing through today. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act led to the immigration of millions of Asians into the U.S. and also resulted in the growth of Asian ethnic enclaves in numerous metropolitan areas around the U.S. These two developments have led to a resurgence of self-employment among many Asian Americans.

Scholars have described four general reasons why Asian Americans are likely to become self-employed, all of which can overlap with each other. These theories are described in more detail in the article on Asian Small Businesses. Briefly summarized, they include:

  • Labor market discrimination: becoming self-employed in order to avoid having to settle for lower-status or lower-paying jobs in the conventional labor market.
  • Ethnic resources: either having “cultural” characteristics that facilitate entrepreneurship or relying on family and relatives for cheap labor and/or co-ethnics for patronage.
  • Structural opportunities: openings within certain economic sectors, markets, or industries that offer easy entry but also include high risks of failure.
  • Class resources: attaining education, training and experience, and/or financial capital in order to enter self-employment.

Being self-employed gives many Asian Americans a sense of personal autonomy but in order to be profitable, many have to work very long hours and use family members as unpaid labor. In addition, many inner-city Black and Latino customers have accused Asian small business owners of exploiting their community by charging high prices, refusing to employ local workers, and treating customers disrespectfully.

These tensions have led to numerous incidents of hostility, most famously represented by the extensive burning of Korean-owned businesses in the Los Angeles riots of 1992. In response, many Asian small business owners have made concerted efforts to address these complaints and reach out more to their communities in order to improve relations.

Adapting to Deindustrialization

While a large proportion of Asian Americans are self-employed, most are conventional employees in the U.S. labor market. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act finally made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on race or ethnicity, which removed legal barriers to employment opportunities for Asian Americans. Reflecting the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity of the Asian American population, contemporary Asian Americans also have different employment and occupational mobility patterns as well.

Social scientists have described how the American economy has undergone a “deindustrialization” in the last few decades from one based on manufacturing to one centered around technological innovation, information management, and services. Within this context, many scholars also note that the U.S. labor is becoming increasingly polarized. That is, there has been an expansion in the number of jobs at the top, within “information-intensive” sectors, and that require high levels of education and job skills and that pay very well — jobs that many Asian Americans have successfully landed.

At the same time, there has also been a proliferation of jobs at the bottom that are relatively low-paying, unstable, and require little education or skills. However, the middle layer of skilled manufacturing and blue collar jobs has generally been shrinking, thereby leading to this stratified labor market. At the low end of the labor market, many Asian Americans share much in common with early Chinese laborers in that they possess little formal skills and English fluency. As a result, they have little choice but to work in relatively low-paying unstable service sector jobs, many located inside traditional urban Asian ethnic enclaves.

To illustrate these patterns, using data from the 2000 Census 5% PUMS, the following table presents distributions of occupational categories for different racial/ethnic and Asian groups (employed, ages 25-64). The proportions in bold represent the largest occupational proportion for each racial/ethnic group while the number in dark red represent the lowest occupational proportion for that group.


Distributions of Occupational Categories, by Racial/Ethnic and Asian Groups
Whites Blacks Hispanics/
Executive & Senior Management 11.2 5.5 5.4 6.8
Computer, Scientific, & Engineering 5.2 2.7 2.2 2.5
Legal & Financial Services 4.1 2.6 1.9 2.1
Medical/Healthcare Professionals 5.2 4.3 2.2 3.1
Education, Media, & Community Svcs. 10.5 8.7 6.2 9.0
Sales, Operations, & Support 29.4 31.3 24.2 26.3
Skilled Blue-Collar 26.4 30.5 37.0 33.6
Manual Services, Farming, & Military 8.4 13.8 20.5 16.1
or Laotian
Chinese Filipinos
Executive & Upper Management 11.1 3.3 10.9 5.5
Computer, Scientific, & Engineering 25.8 4.2 19.9 7.1
Legal & Financial Services 4.9 1.4 6.2 5.0
Medical/Healthcare Professionals 11.8 1.6 5.5 15.7
Education, Media, & Community Svcs. 6.6 4.7 8.6 4.7
Sales, Operations, & Support 22.5 18.7 23.2 31.7
Skilled Blue-Collar 12.4 53.6 14.4 17.9
Manual Services, Farming, & Military 4.8 12.7 12.7 12.7
Japanese Koreans Pacific
Executive & Senior Management 14.5 10.8 6.0 4.2
Computer, Scientific, & Engineering 10.3 7.0 3.6 12.0
Legal & Financial Services 6.2 4.5 2.2 2.9
Medical/Healthcare Professionals 5.5 6.2 3.0 3.9
Education, Media, & Community Svcs. 13.6 10.1 5.6 4.2
Sales, Operations, & Support 30.7 31.0 32.7 18.1
Skilled Blue-Collar 11.3 17.9 30.9 37.0
Manual Services, Farming, & Military 8.9 12.8 16.0 17.8
Click Here for Statistical Methodology and Explanation of Measures

The results indicate that for most racial/ethnic and Asian groups, the largest proportion within each group are concentrated in either the “Sales, Operations, and Support” or “Skilled Blue Collar” occupational categories. On the other hand, the lowest proportions within most groups are found in the “Legal and Financial Services” occupations.

Other notable findings are that, of all the racial/ethnic groups in the table, Asian Indians have the highest proportion in the “Computer, Scientific, & Engineering” occupations. Also,Chinese and Japanese share the highest proportion among all groups in the “Legal and Financial Services” occupations. Filipinos have the highest proportion of those in the “Medical/Healthcare Professionals” categories while Japanese have the highest proportion in the “Education, Media, & Community Services” occupations.

In general, the results again confirm that, at least in terms of occupational attainment, Asian Indians as a group seem to have attained the most prestigious jobs. In addition, Chinese are well-represented in the computer, scientific, and engineering fields, Filipinos have a significant level of representation among medical professionals, and Japanese enjoy a relatively high level of representation as executives and upper management. Conversely, employedCambodians/Hmong/Laotians and Vietnamese tend to be more working class, as shown by their higher representations in the skilled blue collar occupations.

Persistent Glass Ceiling Barriers

As the statistics show, many Asian Americans have attained skilled, prestigious, and relatively high-paying professional jobs. At the same time, many still face numerous challenges in their work environments. For example, although Asian Americans have the highest rates of having a college (43% of all adults between 25 and 64) or a law, medicine, or doctorate degree (6.5% of all adults between 25 and 64), they only have the second highest median personal (per capita) income behind that for White workers.

That is, within many occupations, Asian Americans are still paid less than Whites, despite having the same educational credentials and years of job experiences. In addition, numerous studies continue to point out that Asian Americans are still underrepresented as senior executives in large publicly-owned corporations.

Many scholars point out that the relative lack of Asian Americans within the most prestigious occupations is due to the continuing presence of glass ceiling barriers within the workplace. There are several glass ceiling mechanisms that affect Asian Americans. The first is that many companies consciously or unconsciously bypass Asian Americans when it comes to recruiting for and outreaching to future executives. This may be based on the implicit assumption that Asian Americans do not fit their picture of a future executive or corporate leader.

A second glass ceiling mechanism occurs when Asian Americans have a hard time penetrating the “old boys network” in many occupational environments. Research consistently shows that it is in these informal social networks that valuable mentoring takes place, along with an exchange of important career information. In this case, Asian Americans are hurt by the persistently stereotype that all Asians are foreigners or outsiders.

Third is the phenomenon of “institutional tracking” in which Asian Americans are confined to only professional and technical jobs. While these jobs may pay well up to a certain point, many are dead end jobs that do not have promotion ladders or career tracks that lead up to supervisory or executive positions. Many Asian Americans are restricted to working in these “white collar sweatshops” because their supervisors may feel that they are not interested in managerial, supervisory, or executive positions.

Similarly, many Asian American professionals are alleged to lack the language, communication, or leadership skills required for promotion. In other words, the belief is that while Asian Americans are skilled at technical aspects of certain occupations, they may not have the “soft skills” related to personality, attitude, and behavior that would give them a competitive edge when it comes to moving up into senior leadership positions. Within this context, Asian American workers may be subject to biased and subjective standards of evaluating their work performance.

Achievement in the New Millennium

Despite the challenges that Asian American workers continue to face, they continue to use hard work and employment to attain socioeconomic mobility through numerous boom and bust cycles of the American economy. In the process, many Asian Americans have achieved impressive occupational successes and are poised to become prominent members of their respective industries.

Initially achieving success only to be driven into relative isolation, Asian Americans have persevered, adapted, and taken innovative strategies on their way toward achieving socioeconomic mobility. Reflecting the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Asian American population, employment patterns among workers range from unskilled service sector employees to highly-educated and highly-skilled professionals. Regardless of type of work, Asian Americans continue to further contribute to the strength and vitality of America’s economy and culture.

Copyright © 2001- 2006 by C.N. Le. All rights reserved. Suggested reference: Le, C.N. 2006. “Employment & Occupational Patterns” Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America.

C.N. Le is Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology and Chair of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. He earned his PhD from SUNY-Albany, where he wrote a dissertation analyzing assimilation patterns among APIA groups based on Census data, while simultaneously building Asian-Nation.org — one of the WWW’s most highly regarded sites for news, views and reference information pertaining to Asian American communities in general and Vietnamese American communities in particular.  Author of several widely published feature articles on both APA issues and statistical methodologies, he also provides consulting services in the areas of statistical research and analysis to several organizations and individuals seeking data on the Asian Pacific American community from Census sources and beyond.

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