The Untapped Potential of Latino Workers

As business executives continue to work in an era of uncertainty, one thing is clear — the success of the U.S. economy is inextricably linked to the success of Latino workers. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that by 2018 Latinos will represent 18 percent of the workforce. And by the middle of the century, roughly 30 percent of U.S. workers will be Latino.

Projections like this should lead to good planning and preparation. Yet according to new research from the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), plans are not in place and the preparation is sorely lacking: NCLR’s latest report, published in October, found that although Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, they are often unable to access jobs, many of which are in the fastest-growing industries.

States that are experiencing unprecedented growth in their Latino populations — such as North Carolina and Georgia — have made policy choices without a clear understanding of the Latino labor force, much to the detriment of workers and businesses alike.

According to NCLR’s research, the most common policy misstep has been that many plans for job creation begin and end with tax incentives to lure companies to a state. Some states, including North Carolina, also dedicate resources toward creative workforce training programs that connect skilled workers to jobs in the industries that are getting a boost from the state policies.

But none of the states that NCLR examined come close to investing adequately in the kinds of adult education and basic skills training that the majority of Latinos need to compete for jobs in growing industries such as professional and business services.

A disproportionate number of Latinos in this region have limited formal education or English proficiency, which prevents them from contributing to industries that are driving their state’s economic recovery. Even among Latinos who have the educational background to access high-skilled jobs, many still lack the language abilities necessary to earn higher wages.

For example, 73 percent of Latinos over age 25 in South Carolina speak English less than “very well.” A majority of South Carolina’s Latino population is of Mexican descent and nearly 60 percent of the foreign-born population arrived in South Carolina after 2000. By contrast, more than half of the Latinos in Florida — the state with the largest Latino population and workforce in the region — is native born, thus requiring different approaches to addressing their educational and job training needs. As a result, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when developing strategies to the meet these workers’ needs.

There is the potential for business executives to help inform state job creation agendas, both inside and outside of their companies, however.

Internally, diversity executives can build into a company’s business model a preference for relocation and expansion in regions with standout public investment in workforce development and job training. Outside the office, there is an opportunity for diversity executives to apply their industry knowledge and strengthen local community-based organizations and community colleges by serving on their boards.

This is a way for executives to learn about the needs of the local Latino workforce as well as to identify creative ways to support innovative programs that foster collaboration between community groups, businesses and state government. As such, diversity executives can support efforts that encouraging state officials to spend federal funds wisely.

It’s time for companies that can’t find qualified workers to become part of the solution. The early warning signs uncovered in the NCLR study call for serious policy discussions on how to ensure that jobs are within reach for a broader share of workers and families in the South Atlantic states.

The lessons from this region are also relevant to employers in other states with emerging Latino populations, such as Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, along with employers in states with large, established Latino populations such as Florida and California.

There is also an opportunity for diversity executives as a whole to address deficiencies in skilled labor by having these conversations with regional decision makers, local workforce development officials and service providers. Collectively, these collaborations can develop strategies that benefit employers and workers alike, cultivating a workforce for years to come.

Alicia Criado is an economic and employment project policy associate for National Council of La Raza. She can be reached at