September 2000 - Last month's Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles recalls a similar convention eight years ago, organized by an entrepreneur and labor relations expert named Alexis Herman. The 1992 convention set the stage for Bill Clinton to win the Democratic nomination. Ms. Herman then went to Washington as part of the Clinton administration, first as public liaison in the White House, and since May 1997 as Secretary of Labor.
During her tenure, Ms. Herman has monitored a fall in the unemployment rate to historical lows. In May 2000, unemployment hit 3.9 percent, the lowest figure in 30 years. Unemployment among Hispanics and other minority groups has dropped along the same trend line, and Ms. Herman has emerged as a leader in the Welfare to Work program. She has supervised the settlement of several high-profile labor strikes, including the UPS negotiations of late 1997 and the basketball players' walkout that shut down the NBA for almost half of the 1997-98 season.
"We do not have a worker shortage in this country. We have a skills shortage," Ms. Herman likes to say. To maintain the nation's economic growth, she has planted three strategic goals: a prepared work force, a secure work force, and a quality workplace. In recognition of the progress made among the Hispanic work force – and to offer her opinion on how to sustain it – she agreed to an interview with HISPANIC BUSINESS. The interview with Senior Editor Joel Russell was conducted by telephone from Ms. Herman's office in Washington, D.C.
HB: What are the latest figures on Hispanic employment?
AH: I'm very pleased with the overall employment picture for Hispanics. It's good to see this is an economy in which all Americans can participate. We are now recording the lowest levels of unemployment for Hispanics since the Department of Labor began keeping the data. Today, Hispanics have a 5.6 percent unemployment rate. When President Clinton took office, that number was 11.3 percent. So we have been able to cut Hispanic unemployment in half during the Clinton administration.
HB: How do you explain the improvement? What real-world trends are behind those numbers?
AH: The investments made several years ago in training and education are paying off in the Hispanic community. For example, college-degree unemployment [the rate for those workers holding a degree] is only 1.6 percent. It's clear that the more training and education you have, the better your chances.
Otherwise, the numbers mirror the situation in the economy. Overall labor-force participation is high. Hispanics participate at a rate of 68.6 percent, compared to 67.2 percent for the entire civilian population. That means that members of the Latino community are able to pursue their dreams of buying homes and raising families by working in the economy.
HB: How do the increases for Hispanics compare to those for other ethnic groups?
AH: Compared to other groups, African Americans historically have high unemployment. Today it stands at 7.9 percent. We have to be concerned about young people, both Hispanic and African American. In a knowledge economy, we can ill afford lack of investment in the education of the work force. In the Hispanic community, there are 5 million people in the 16-to-24 age category, and half of them are high school dropouts. We need to make investments. Learning is key. As I always say, "knowing means growing."
HB: Which industrial sectors or job descriptions show the biggest increases? Which geographic markets look healthy?
AH: When you look at where growth in Hispanic employment has occurred, the big gains are in agriculture, mining, and construction. The increase in non-farm payroll has been 32 percent to 46 percent. We need to pay attention to the rural economies instead of concentrating on the cities. As for sectors and areas, 68 percent of U.S. Hispanics live in only four states – California, Texas, Florida, and New York. But if you ask what areas are growing the fastest, you get an interesting pick – places like North Carolina, Nevada, Idaho, and Maryland. The Hispanic population in those places has increased by more than 100 percent since 1993.
HB: Along with the tight labor market, have Hispanics seen any increase in real wages or salaries?
AH: We have seen wages go up, but the wage gap between Hispanics and the majority community remains somewhat disturbing. In 1998, Hispanic income rose 4.8 percent – a larger gain than for the overall population, at 3.8 percent.
One good-news aspect of this economy is wage growth. Again, people at all wage levels are participating in the prosperity. Median household income has risen $3,316, or almost 16 percent.
HB: What long-term trends do you foresee in Hispanic/minority employment?
AH: The importance of Hispanic workers will increase. The Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics will go from 12 percent of the work force to 25 percent in first half of this century. As we talk about 21st-century opportunities, we have to stress the technological and Internet skills that will drive those opportunities.
HB: What's your advice to young Hispanic professionals?
AH: Get an education. Stay in school. Take advantage of high-tech training, because that's where most job growth will come from. Also, we can no longer assume that education ends with high school or college. As Vice-President Al Gore says, lifelong education should be our aim and model. In the New Economy, everyone has to see the advantages of continuous education – not just the private sector, although of course we encourage incumbent employee training. We used to focus just on new hires. With new technology and globalization affecting the economy, there's a lot of dynamism in the work force. Worker skills need to improve to keep up with economic progress.
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