The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, February 7, 2004

Hispanics driving workforce increase

By DIANNE SOLÍS / The Dallas Morning News
Hispanics have propelled more than half of labor force growth for the last four years, a significant change that raises many policy and economic questions.

In the period from 2000 to 2003, Latinos have constituted 53 percent to 63 percent of labor force growth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of this comes from continued Mexican immigration into a population that has swelled to about 40 million.

The Dallas Morning News' Board of Economists, which met in Dallas last week, held mixed views on whether a skills mismatch was occurring. And it suggested that Latino labor force growth might ameliorate a coming labor shortage.

Hispanic educational levels aren't as high as those of other groups. But care must be taken to look at Hispanic immigrants and the Hispanic native-born separately, cautioned Pia Orrenius, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Drop-out rates above 40 percent are frequently cited for Hispanics, including immigrants who have never stepped inside a U.S. school, Ms. Orrenius said. A combined number "is not a relevant statistic," she said.

Dropout rates for native-born Hispanics are around 14 to 15 percent, Ms. Orrenius said. That provides challenges, as the rate is still higher than that for non-Hispanic whites and Asians, she said.

But, the economist said, "that means the great majority of them succeed."

Lyssa Jenkens of the Greater Dallas Chamber and one of the panelists on the board, said she has a problem with simplistic views of Latino educational levels. Too many people ignore that it is a population 25 years and older from countries south of the border who didn't receive a high school diploma, she said.

"It was not their children," Ms. Jenkens said.Harvey Rosenblum, senior vice president and director of research at the Dallas Fed, noted that an economy runs with workers of various skill levels. "In an economy with 300 million people, soon to be 400 million before you bat an eyelash, you can't have everyone be a top-flight engineer," Mr. Rosenblum said.

Nevertheless, educational improvements are needed, said one economist.

"We don't want to move to an economy that has a segment that is tremendously well off, the richest in the world, that has access to everything that they might ever want, and at the same time has a huge portion of the population that has no chance," said Jorge González, the economics department chairman at Trinity University in San Antonio.