The economic crisis facing the country has crushed employment levels in all business sectors, but U.S. Hispanics have been among those hit the hardest. Still, there's optimism that Hispanics will weather the storm.
The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, Hispanics will likely supply valuable labor and sustain the U.S. economy far into the 21st century. Advancements in education are expected to produce more health care and traditional white-collar jobs, experts say.
And although traditional construction jobs are on the wane, Hispanic workers are expected to thrive when the new wave of green construction building hits in the coming years. In these areas, Hispanics are expected to dominate the work force.
The dynamic expansion of a Hispanic work force drove the growth of manufacturing and construction sectors in the first half of the decade. Hispanics born in the United States, as well as those emigrating from other countries, added 6.5 million workers to the labor force between 2000 and 2007, accounting for nearly half of its growth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite their crucial role in the U.S. economy, Hispanic workers are at particular risks during economic downturns. When companies downsize, and job opportunities are fewer, prospects for young Hispanics and other minorities are significantly worse.
In the last decade, "construction was the key to this whole economic growth, and in turn Hispanics were the key to that sector," said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director of research at Pew Hispanic Center. "This relationship was very beneficial to Hispanics."
Hispanics comprise about one out of four, or 2.7 million, construction workers in the United States. Starting in 2003, with a boom in the housing industry, the unemployment rate for U.S. Hispanics slid, dropping to a record low of 4.9 percent in late 2006.
But beginning in 2007, housing slumped and construction shed jobs. After a steady decline, by the end of 2008 the general Hispanic jobless rate had spiked at 9.2 percent, almost 2 percent higher than the rate for the entire U.S. population. Indeed, between December 2007 and December 2008, the number of unemployed Hispanic workers increased from 1.39 million to 2.04 million, an addition of 650,000 men and women out of work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, although much of that includes foreign-born workers.
Hispanic foreign-born workers in particular have borne the brunt of the dwindling job outlook in construction. Until 2008, they comprised 12 percent of the construction sector workforce. But immigrant workers, said Gabriela Lemus, executive director of Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, a coalition of Hispanic union leaders, are the "last to be hired and the first to leave." Mr. Kochhar concurred, stating that "Mexican immigrants are among the most severely affected." In part, points out Hector Sanchez, director of policy and research for LCLAA, this loss of jobs for immigrants, and in particular undocumented workers, occurred as they have faced increased hostility from public opinion and also law enforcement agencies.
Hope on the Horizon
A few economic sectors, such as education and health care, are relatively insulated from the downturn.
Recognizing the booming Hispanic workforce as a solution to the severe shortage in health care workers, the state of California has called for increased minority representation in such occupations as nurses, physicians, and medical technicians.
"Health care will continue to grow," Ms. Lemus said. "That's an opportunity."
For Hispanics, education is the key to surviving the crisis.
The number of degrees awarded annually to Hispanics has escalated in recent years. In the last three decades, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by Hispanic students has climbed 500 percent, and high school graduation rates have steadily improved.
In 2006, 75 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics completed high school, U.S. Department of Education statistics show.
In the short term, the Hispanic community is proving especially vulnerable to the decay in job markets and the drop in wages. But in the long run, the U.S. Hispanic population offers a talented, booming workforce for American companies that soon will be needed to replace aging baby boomers.
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