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Cover Package: Education and Training
Closing the Latino Education Gap
Vol. 58   No. 5
Educators and businesspeople are striving to prepare an increasing proportion of tomorrow's workers. Hispanics are projected to make up 30 percent of the U.S. labor force in 2050.

By Dori Meinert  5/1/2013
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Guerardo Aguirre, 19, dropped out of high school early in his senior year after he wrecked his prized 11-year-old Chevy Impala. He didn’t want to walk to school in Aurora, Ill., in part because of gang members he might encounter.

Yet he admits that he was also tired of school and unmotivated. Eager to work and make money, Aguirre earned a GED certificate and has held several short-term jobs. He now sells used cars.

"My mom always pressured me to do good in school," recalls Aguirre, who boasts that he was in honors classes beginning in seventh grade. He once aspired to be an accountant. "My plan was to go to college … but there was no money for it."

The lack of educational attainment among Hispanics such as Aguirre represents one of the greatest challenges facing U.S. employers, HR professionals and researchers say. By 2050, Hispanics are projected to make up 30 percent of the U.S. labor force. However, only 64.3 percent of Hispanics age 25 and older have at least a high school diploma or the equivalent, and just 14.1 percent have a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"HR professionals, and corporate executives and business leaders broadly, should be immensely concerned because, as we look at the changing demographics of our nation, Latinos continue to represent higher and higher proportionate shares of where we are operating our businesses," says Magda Yrizarry, Verizon’s vice president and chief talent and diversity officer. To remain competitive, U.S. business leaders must "care about the ability to have a rich and talented pipeline from which to draw our future workforce."

Over the next four decades,
37.6 million Hispanic workers are projected to join the U.S. labor force, which will account for about 80 percent of the total growth in the workforce. During that same period, only 9 million non-Hispanic workers are expected to enter the labor force.

By 2050, the U.S. labor force is projected to be 201 million, including
59.3 million Hispanics, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That rapid growth in the proportion of Hispanic workers is a key reason some business leaders are making concerted efforts to improve the education levels of this critical demographic group. Another reason: A more highly educated society is better able to compete internationally. And because higher education is linked to higher lifetime earnings, businesses benefit when U.S. residents have more money to spend on products and services, Yrizarry notes.

High School Interns Study Corporate Life from the Inside

Five times a month, Karen Gallardo, a freshman at Cristo Rey High School, boards a school bus at 8 a.m. to head downtown and work inside one of Chicago’s glass office towers. It’s light-years away from her predominantly Mexican neighborhood.

The first day of her internship was "nerve-racking," recalls Gallardo, 14, who works in the Sidley Austin LLP law office. "It was all professional. I didn’t know how to react to it."

She and her parents thought Cristo Rey, with its corporate work-study program, was a way to ensure that she will get to college. She wants to be a teacher or a high school counselor.

Her parents, who emigrated from Mexico, have eighth-grade educations. Her dad is a truck driver. Her mom works in a factory. "They work a lot, and they really don’t have a lot of money. I think going to college helps you a lot," says Gallardo, whose older sister is in college now.

Sidley Austin and other companies pay Cristo Rey $31,900 a year for each team of four students who share one job. The money pays for 70 percent of the students’ tuition. The rest is paid by families and through fundraising. The Chicago office hires four teams to work in its HR and records departments each school year, says HR Operations Director Moria E. Waddy.

The school is part of the Cristo Rey Network, a group of 25 schools in economically disadvantaged areas across the country. The schools teach office skills as well as soft skills such as shaking hands.

At Sidley Austin, Gallardo works in the HR department, where she scans documents and helps with data entry.

Rose Alvarez, the HR coordinator who supervises the HR interns, says she finds it rewarding to help them stay on track for college. "I’m a Latina, and I feel that sometimes talented Latinos can be overlooked for positions because of a lack of education."

Three other Sidley Austin offices have subsequently hired interns from Cristo Rey schools. The law firm has employed 140 interns since 1997. "We’ve given these students a glimpse of corporate life," Waddy says.

Shifting Tide

The city of Aurora has grown rapidly in the past decade to become Illinois’ second-largest city. It’s 41 percent Hispanic. Clothing shops and restaurants downtown and along numerous other business strips advertise services in Spanish.

While many businesses appear to be thriving, the city’s educational statistics remain troubling. Of Aguirre’s freshman class at East Aurora High School, 40 percent failed to graduate with the Class of 2012. The student population is 82 percent Hispanic. Three-quarters live in low-income households.

Most Latinos entering the Chicago-area labor force are of Mexican origin, and most are U.S. citizens. Yet Latinos, particularly those of Mexican origin, rank at or near the bottom of Chicago workers in terms of education and wage levels, according to a 2011 study.

"In the absence of stronger education investments that focus on blue-collar Latino families, metro Chicago’s labor productivity is likely to decline," warns John P. Koval, senior research fellow at the Egan Urban Center at DePaul University, in his report The Latino Labor Force in Metro Chicago.

Of 51 million Hispanics in the United States, almost two-thirds, or 33 million, identify as being of Mexican origin on census forms—a subgroup that, along with Guatemalans and Salvadorans, has one of the lowest levels of educational attainment, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Of those of Mexican ancestry age 25 and older, just 9 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Meanwhile, 55 percent of HR professionals expect an increased demand for candidates with bachelor’s degrees in the next three to five years, and 41 percent expect an increased need for people with advanced degrees, according to a 2012 Society for Human Resource Management survey of 4,695 HR professionals.

With aging Baby Boomers retiring, the U.S. will have a shortage of 1.5 million college-educated workers in 2020, researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute predict.

The Roadblocks

Seventy-four percent of young Latinos who quit high school or didn’t go to college say they made this decision because they needed to help support their families, says Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Additional obstacles include poor English skills, a dislike of school, and a feeling that they don’t need more education for the careers they want, according to a 2009 national survey by the center.

Other researchers have found that immigrant parents’ low levels of formal education, limited English and unfamiliarity with the school system are also factors in their children’s lower achievement.

Some Hispanic students look forward to college, only to be hit with the reality of their immigration status, a problem President Barack Obama sought to fix in June 2012 when he authorized a two-year, renewable reprieve from deportation for young illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the U.S. military. As of March, 245,493 young immigrants have been granted deferred action while Congress debates broader immigration reform, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Role Models Lead the Way

Verizon’s Yrizarry knows firsthand how critical role models are. Her parents emigrated from Puerto Rico, but her father died when she was 3. Her mother raised three children in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood. "My mom was amazingly resourceful and had us involved in various activities," she says.

Those activities introduced her to other adults who were major influences. "My Girl Scout leader was an Italian woman who came on a bus from very far away," Yrizarry says. "I’ll never forget her sacrifice and her investment in me."

That’s why Yrizarry and others in Verizon’s 870-member Hispanic affinity group speak at career days and workshops at schools nationwide: They want to expose young Latinos to the corporate world. They also bring students in to tour Verizon offices and meet executives. "Just broadening their view of the possibilities is something I see as valuable," she says.

Career days serve as a way to connect with parents as well, Yrizarry says. "I can speak in Spanish and English. … That’s very important to parents, many of whom have not yet mastered the English language and are trying to navigate the very difficult system of education for their children." Much of the hands-on work required for the career program is done by members of Verizon’s Hispanic Support Organization, but HR professionals provide support. Some activities take place during business hours, and that has to be balanced with business needs and responsibilities.

"HR has a role to enable—and perhaps to a degree encourage and certainly validate the value of—our participation," Yrizarry says. "It is an extension of our corporate responsibility."

Verizon employees find working with students rewarding, and they often establish long-term relationships with them and advocate for the students to be hired at Verizon. The employees "have a great deal of pride that the company would care enough about these communities," Yrizarry says.

Education of Hispanic youths represents a priority for GE’s Hispanic Forum, too. Last year, 3,500 U.S. members held 55 events, with 1,400 GE employees volunteering 6,300 hours, says Miriam Madera, HR manager at GE Healthcare and national co-leader in community service for the forum.

Each year, forum members take to classrooms nationwide for a Junior Achievement program focusing on financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship.

Two years ago, more than 600 forum members conducted a career program at a predominantly Hispanic high school in Philadelphia. One teenage girl told Madera, "I didn’t know people like you existed." Her comment resonated with Madera, whose parents emigrated from Puerto Rico. "If we can just make that impact on that group of kids and that one young lady, it’s a huge return on the investment of the time," she says.

Last year, GE gave more than 30 scholarships to Hispanic college students, funded by employee donations and a company match. Each student who receives a scholarship is paired with a GE mentor. "Our goal is not only to get them into college but to keep them there," Madera explains.

Corporate Exposure

Internships offer high school and college students an inside peek at a corporate world that otherwise might be unknown. HR professionals don’t have to reinvent the wheel when crafting programs. They can reach out to established organizations for assistance.

Verizon’s Hispanic affinity group members work with the National Academy Foundation, a network of 546 career-themed academies in urban areas in 39 states that provide industry-specific curricula and work-based learning experiences. Thirty-six percent of the students are Hispanic. Verizon hired 20 high school interns, including Hispanics, through the foundation last summer.

Verizon and GE also hire college-age interns and provide scholarships through professional organizations including ALPFA, an association for Latino business professionals; the National Hispanic Society of MBAs; and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

Sodexo Inc. hires up to eight Latino interns each summer through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, says Lourdes Diaz, vice president of diversity relations and strategic partnership at the food and facilities management company. The interns are placed in departments including accounting and HR, and on legal teams.


In recent years, Hispanics have been making education gains. The percentage of Hispanic students who graduated from high school on time in 2010 was 71.4 percent—a 10-point increase in five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, some attribute that to the weak economy or the recent decline in immigration.

The number of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics enrolled in college during 2011 reached a record 16.5 percent of college enrollments, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

But they aren’t all receiving four-year degrees: While the number of young Latinos enrolling in college increased 13 percentage points from 2000 to 2011, the number of Latinos ages 25 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose just 5 percentage points from 2000 to 2012.

One reason: About 70 percent of Hispanics work while attending college, and "life gets in the way," explains Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education.

When Latinos do graduate from college, they are often overlooked by employers, she says.

"We hear people in companies saying, ‘We want to hire more Latinos. We just don’t know where they are,’ " Santiago says. To assist employers, the group recently published a report listing the top 25 institutions graduating Latinos.

The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities also maintains a list of colleges and universities with track records of graduating Hispanic students.

Financial Support

Grants and scholarships can encourage and enable more Hispanics to stay in school. Since 2010, the Ford Motor Co. Fund has provided 28 councils of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) with grants for high school dropout prevention programs nationwide.

"In most communities, the levels of absences have decreased, the grades have improved, and the graduation rates have improved," says Joedis Avila, the Ford fund’s community outreach manager. He credits these achievements to LULAC members who operate after-school programs that include tutoring, mentoring, career training and field trips.

Even leaders of small companies are recognizing the need to step up to address the Latino education gap. Esterline Defense Systems in Coachella, Calif., offers six college scholarships to children of its 325 employees, most of whom are of Mexican descent.

In Aurora, Ill., the company that owns the used-car dealership where Aguirre works recently announced scholarships for employees’ children as well as teens in the largely Hispanic communities it serves. The Car Outlet and two affiliated companies employ a staff of 350, most of whom are Hispanic, at 13 Chicago-area sites.

The dealerships’ HR manager, Leslie VanderMeulen, states the business case: "Our organization sells primarily to Hispanics. Most of our employees are required to be bilingual. If we’re to continue to grow in this business, having a high percentage of Hispanics in the workforce is good for us."

The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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