The San Diego Union-Tribune
February 24, 2004

Go-anywhere Latino immigrants fare very well in landing jobs

By Leonel Sanchez

Latinos, particularly immigrant construction and service workers, have filled a disproportionate number of the jobs created during the national economic recovery.

The number of employed Latinos rose by 659,641 to 17.7 million between the fourth quarter of 2002 and the fourth quarter of 2003, according to a study released yesterday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C.

The non-Latino labor force of about 121 million workers gained 371,066 jobs during that time.

Latino immigrants, especially those who have been in the country only since 2000, have fared better than U.S.-born Latinos, who tend to be younger, according to the study of census and employment data.

Rakesh Kochhar, a Pew researcher and author of the study, said Latino immigrants have been aided by various factors, including their willingness to take low-wage jobs, relocate anywhere in the country and the existence of family networks as sources of employment information.

"The one thing that characterizes immigrants is that they're go-getters," Kochhar said. "They're here to work. To them it's not critical whether they do it in California or New England."

Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population and the labor force.

Nearly 60 percent of the jobs gained by Latinos, 387,913, were in construction, where 15 percent of the nation's Latino immigrant workers are concentrated.

"Latino immigrants have benefited by being in the right place at the right time," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

"In recent years they have been a major source of labor for the home construction industry, and home construction is one of the industries where employment grew overall rather robustly," he said.

Employment of non-Hispanic workers in construction increased by 636,852, according to the study.

The state's Employment Development Department does not break down jobs in the San Diego region by race or ethnicity, but the number of construction jobs rose from 72,900 in December 2000 to 80,600 in December 2003.

"We'll probably see an increase in 2004 because of all the houses that were burned last year along with the original demand (for housing construction)," said Ryan Singer, a research analyst at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Many Latino immigrants who work in construction are in low-skilled positions that pay low wages, said Donald Cohen, director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a San Diego labor think tank.

"They're general laborers. They dig ditches and do other lowest-skilled jobs," he said.

Cohen, contrary to those who say that immigrants are taking jobs from native-born workers, said they're taking jobs that most Americans are not willing to take because they pay too little.

"American workers will do any job, but they want to be compensated fairly," he said. Many Latino immigrant workers are in the country illegally and do not make such demands, he said. "They're very exploitable."

The unemployment rate for Latinos dropped from 8.2 percent in June 2003 to 6.6 percent in December 2003 as a result of the job gains.

The rate increased to 7.3 percent in January as more Latinos entered the job market. The unemployment rate for the nation as a whole was 5.6 percent last month.

In addition to construction, the biggest employment gains for Latinos were in business services, retail and agriculture, according to the Pew study. Latino workers suffered job losses in manufacturing, eating, drinking and lodging services and hospitals and other health services.
Leonel Sanchez: (619) 542-4568;