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Hispanics’ lack of schooling has implications

– Sitting a few steps away from a black marble memorial to his friend Mickey who was stabbed to death two years ago at age 15, Ronald Ramos looks bewildered when asked why he didn’t take the SAT, seek financial aid and apply to college after graduating from high school.

“Parents don’t know what the system is here,” he says in an interview at Georgetown South, a Latino neighborhood in Manassas. “We don’t know what to do.”

Hispanics such as Ramos are the fastest growing component of America’s workforce. The country will need their taxes to help pay the Social Security benefits of retirees and their skills to fill jobs of baby boomers leaving the labor force.

Today, Ramos, who is 18 and of Mexican descent, is looking for temporary work to help pay for college.

If he fails, he risks joining the more than 80 percent of Latinos ages 25 and older who don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

The lack of educational attainment among Hispanics is one of the biggest crises in the American labor force with far-reaching implications for the economy. Without more education, Hispanics won’t be able to fill higher-paying jobs, contributing to already widening U.S. income disparity.

Without higher incomes, they won’t join the consumers that propel the earnings of U.S. companies ranging from Ford to Verizon Communications. The unemployment rate for Hispanics was 10 percent in October, compared with 7.9 percent nationally.

“You can’t meet our national goals and our workforce needs without having a tactical plan for Latinos,” says Deborah Santiago, vice president of policy and research for Excelencia in Education, a Washington research organization that focuses on education of Hispanics. “This is just a factual statement given what the current population numbers are.”

Only 14 percent of Hispanics ages 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2011 compared with 51 percent for Asians, 20 percent for African-Americans and 34 percent for whites, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Hispanics were crucial to President Obama’s re-election on Nov. 6, giving 71 percent of their votes to him, according to an exit poll by Edison Research of Somerville, N.J., and published by The New York Times. They played a role in his victories in states including Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.

The president authorized a program in June that shields from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States before age 16 and are no older than 30 so they can attend U.S. schools or apply for work permits. By contrast, the Republican platform opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants, urged them to leave voluntarily and supported workplace verification systems.

Of the 47 million new workers entering the labor force between 2010 and 2050, a projected 37.6 million, or 80 percent, will be Hispanic, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report in October. Their share of the workforce will grow to 18.6 percent by 2020 and to 30 percent in 2050, doubling from 15 percent in 2010.

That means by the end of the decade, about one in five available workers for companies such as Citigroup, Apple or General Motors will have last names like Ramos, Castillo or Perez.

Immigration trends could change. The net flow of immigrants from Mexico, the largest source of immigration to the U.S., began slowing five years ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

Still, companies will count on growing Latino household formation to sell their products.

“If you don’t reach out to the Hispanic consumer, you cannot make it,” says Alvaro Cabal, Ford’s manager in charge of Hispanic communications, in Dallas. “From the iPhone to the Android, from cars to houses to sausages, that is the reality. It is going to be a huge population.”

Ford began to see the increase in Hispanic car buyers years ago and structured sales and marketing efforts toward them, he says. It’s paying off. The Dearborn, Mich., automaker’s light-duty vehicle sales volume to Hispanics rose about 25 percent this year through June compared with a 9.7 percent increase in total sales, according to Polk, a Southfield, Mich., auto-marketing research company.

“This population represents the new America,” says Magda Yrizarry, chief talent and diversity officer at Verizon in New York. “Both as an employer, and as a company that is responsible to its shareholders, you have to be able to monitor and gain share” of both their spending and their talent.

Verizon recognized the importance of its Hispanic customers in the 1990s, Yrizarry says. Now, 11 percent of the company’s workforce is Hispanic; it markets specifically to Latino consumers and trains its installation and in-store teams to work with them. It targets Hispanics who are proficient in Spanish and those who aren’t, rolling out an ad this year with Jennifer Lopez speaking English in one version and Spanish in another.

Yrizarry says Verizon needs a workforce competent in science and engineering and is “concerned broadly” about technology acumen among U.S. students. Low college degree attainment by Hispanics limits the pool of candidates that the company can hire, she says. Verizon is a sponsor of the National Academy Foundation, which promotes industry-focused curricula at the high school level.

“In a growing economy, we will need extra workers,” says Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center. “And more than half of the new workers employers will work with will be Latino. Without a four-year college degree, they are going to have a difficult time in those upper-echelon managerial jobs.”

Fry’s research shows Hispanics making some gains. The number of 18- to 24-year-olds was a record 16.5 percent share of all college enrollments in 2011 compared with 11 percent in 2006. High-school completion rates reached 76 percent last year, also the highest on record. Associate degrees obtained by Hispanics rose to 112,211 in 2010, up from 97,921 the previous year and 51,563 in 2000, his research shows.

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