Wanted: Latinos to help fill U.S. government ranks
washington -- At 20, Rudy Rodas is looking at a bright future. The bilingual business major, who expects to graduate with honors from George Washington University next May, is the kind of candidate whom prospective employers fight over.
The federal government hopes to win his services with the help of a new campaign launched to solve an old problem: Unlike African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans, Latinos are still underrepresented in the federal workforce, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
“It’s something that’s been an issue for decades,” said office spokesman Ken Oliver-Mendez. “What’s really new is we’re using more media and broadening our approach toward recruitment. We’ve been actively going to Hispanic media outlets. We’ve been working with nonprofits trying to let the Hispanic population know about the federal government as an employer.”
But unless this program succeeds where others like it have failed, the end result may be no more than a fractional gain: Despite the government’s efforts, Latino representation in the federal workforce rose just two-tenths of a percentage point from 2005 to 2006.
Historically, minorities have found federal employment a road to opportunity. The proportions of African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans working for the government all equal or exceed the corresponding percentages in the civilian workforce.
Latinos, on the other hand, make up 7.6% of the federal workforce, compared with 12.8% of the civilian labor force. But Latinos have made significant gains in federal internship programs at the agencies where they are most underrepresented. Because internships tend to increase the likelihood of a job offer, an increase in the number of Latino employees might be expected -- though it doesn’t seem to be working that way.
Latinos held more than 20% of the internships at the Justice Department in 2006, but 8.8% of the full-time jobs. According to Office of Personnel Management statistics, similar discrepancies exist at NASA, the Agriculture Department and the Department of the Army.
Efforts are being made to improve those numbers. The Hispanic Assn. of Colleges and Universities, or HACU, and the National Society of Hispanic MBAs sponsor government internships. A recent survey of the HACU-sponsored interns showed that 80% of those who graduated after their internships were offered full-time federal jobs, and 38% accepted.
“I would suggest that 38% is a tremendous number. That’s a lot higher rate than I was expecting, considering the other numbers involved,” said William Gil, the association’s assistant vice president of collegiate programs and federal relations. “I think people know that there’s a federal government out there and that they have jobs, but they don’t know how to apply for those jobs. That’s where the big chasm is. The internships are a way to eliminate that chasm.”
HACU sponsors networking lunches for Latino campus groups and brings past interns to speak to students. Internship information is also distributed through the tight-knit national Latino fraternity system.
One of those fraternity pitches worked on Rodas, an intern since June at the Commerce Department. He has done so well that he has been asked to stay through the fall. “When I first started the internship, they told us that they were looking to hire people with the baby boomers retiring and they were looking at internships like HACU’s to fill in these numbers,” he said. “It’s obvious to me that they’re targeting multicultural students. . . . It’s encouraging.”
Rodas’ parents emigrated legally from Guatemala before he was born. His father has two cleaning jobs and sends money to relatives in Guatemala; his mother is an employee at a lamp factory in Trenton, N.J.
“I was raised to understand that doing public service is important, and I think that’s what working for the government lets you do,” Rodas said.
Though the concept of public service as a higher calling might be enough to get Rodas and other Latinos to try federal employment, more is required to persuade them to stay. Jared Bernstein, a senior labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research center allied with the labor movement, laid out several reasons why federal employment was attractive.
“The federal sector is the most unionized sector in the economy,” he said. “The impact of that is often a better compensation package, higher wages and better benefits -- especially for younger workers and non- college graduates.”
He said that one lure for graduates was a slow job-market recovery in the private sector.
“By some measures, younger workers have been doing pretty badly in this recovery period,” he said. “There’s been an unusual stagnation in employment rates [and] young workers’ employment rates have fallen pretty sharply.”
By contrast, the federal government is expecting a retirement wave. The Office of Personnel Management estimates that 40% of the nearly 1.6 million federal employees will retire in the next decade and that 60% of federal employees will be eligible for retirement.
Still, Bernstein said, even with fewer available jobs in the private sector, the draw of signing bonuses, fast-paced work and the “glitz” factor of some employment opportunities could be too much to compete with.
Government officials say they’re confident their initiatives will make a difference. The personnel management office aired its first TV campaign in the last year, and Oliver-Mendez and others have appeared on Spanish-language television stations to promote the federal jobs website, www.usajobs.gov.
Brent A. Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that his organization appreciated the efforts by the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies but that they may not be the answer to improving Latino hiring and retention.
“One of the problems is agencies have got a tendency to replicate the current demographics of the federal workforce, and the people who are doing the hiring aren’t really Latinos,” he said.
“The only way African Americans were able to get a fair representation, to get where they are today, is because desegregation was mandated and there were consequences put into effect for not having that fair representation.”
He added: “There are no consequences for not having fair Hispanic representation. Something needs to be mandated to make that happen.”
But such a mandate isn’t likely, said Antonio San Martin, senior policy counsel at the Office of Personnel Management.
“The federal government is a merit-based employer,” he said. “Giving preference based on race . . . would be a violation of law and the Constitution.”