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 did not 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 in Georgetown South, a Latino neighborhood in Manassas, Virginia. “We don’t know what to do.”
Hispanics such as Ramos are the fastest growing component of the US’ 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 aged 25 and older who do not have a bachelor’s degree.
The lack of educational attainment among Hispanics is one of the biggest crises in the US labor force with far-reaching implications for the economy. Without more education, Hispanics will not be able to fill higher-paying jobs, contributing to already widening US income disparity. Without higher incomes, they will not join the consumers that propel the earnings of US companies ranging from Ford Motor Co to Verizon Communications. The unemployment rate for Hispanics was 10 percent last month, 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 aged 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher last year compared with 51 percent of Asians, 20 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of whites, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Hispanics were crucial to US President Barack 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, New Jersey, 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 came to the US before the age of 16 and are no older than 30, so that they can attend US 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 US Bureau of Labor Statistics report last month. 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, the bureau said.
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 US, began slowing five years ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.