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Why the Federal Government Can’t Recruit and Retain Hispanic-Americans

by
John Bersentes and Mark Havard
Jan 27, 2010, 5:21 am ET

crl_mastheadThe U.S. is subject to powerful cultural forces rooted in demographics and ethnicity. Nowhere is the influence of these cultural crosswinds more evident today than in our growing Hispanic population and its increasing claim on a share of the American Dream. By the numbers, Latinos are the dominant minority group in the nation, totaling more than 15 percent of the population, a proportion that continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. They make up just under 13% of the U.S. workforce nationwide, certainly a significant portion but still lagging their overall share in the American population.

But the participation of Hispanic-Americans in the federal workforce is a different story. According to the latest data (2008) from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Latinos make up barely 8% of the Federal workforce. In recent years, a number of high-visibility initiatives have been directed at the challenge of Hispanic participation, but the numbers continue to lag. Despite their seeming best efforts, Federal agencies have generally made little progress in recruiting and retaining Hispanic employees over the last decade.

At TMP Government, this situation has puzzled us as well. In the March Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership (ERE’s print publication geared at recruiting leaders), we lay out a seven-step suggested solution to the problem.

For now, though, we’ll kick it off online by suggesting a few possible causes and symptoms of the government’s apparent failure to make headway on this challenge.

Statistics Tell the Tale

Again, Hispanic-Americans are the largest and fastest-growing minority segment in the U.S. By all predictions, this trend will continue at least through the first half of this century. As of its last estimate (2007), the U.S. Census Bureau pegs the median age of U.S. Hispanics at 27.7 years, compared to 36.8 years for the rest of the population. And almost 34% of U.S. Hispanics are younger than 18; for the population as a whole, only 25% of Americans are under 18. By 2050, again according to the Census Bureau, Hispanic-Americans will make up nearly 25% of the total population.

These predictions promise significant implications for our culture and economy — not to mention the U.S. labor market. Overall employment numbers in the U.S. are already showing the impact of this accelerating demographic shift. Since 1980, the American labor force has grown by more than 41%. Fully a third of this increase is accounted for by Hispanics.

Human capital professionals in the corporate world appear to dealing effectively with this groundswell of Hispanics in the general workforce, and are diligently preparing for the new HR imperatives it will bring in its wake. But this is not the case with government human capital leaders. We have one question for them:

Why is the Federal government’s track record of recruiting and developing Hispanic employees so bad?

Across the board, the feds have managed to achieve only 7.8% participation by Hispanics in the government workforce. And the news gets worse: Hispanic men and women today represent only 3.6% of individuals at federal senior pay levels — a proportion that drops to 2.5% when you take political appointees out of the calculation.

These numbers are puzzling, to say the least. The government has traditionally been the standard-bearer for minority participation in the workforce. Consider African-Americans: they make up 13% percent of the U.S. population and — according to the latest available count (2008) — more than 18% of the Federal workforce. Certainly we should credit most of this progress to vigorous initiatives by Federal agencies, beginning in the early 1970s, to recruit and retain talented African-Americans.

But when it comes to leveling the playing field for Hispanics in government, today’s recruitment initiatives appear to be yielding only marginal gains at best, and in some cases they are barely holding the line against attrition.

We’re prepared to suggest several factors that may be diminishing the government’s success in making recruitment gains among Hispanic-Americans. At the same time, we are identifying a number of technical and strategic measures that in our view can go a long way toward helping the government succeed in this mission. Moreover, these innovations have the potential to enrich other dimensions of Federal human capital management substantially — beyond recruitment and beyond the Hispanic-American segment.

What factors influence the government’s disappointing track record in recruiting and retaining Hispanics?

Here, in brief, are a handful of factors that may be contributing to the Feds’ apparent lack of success with the Hispanic-American segment.

Competitive Barriers From Industry

The corporate community has seemingly mastered the Hispanic recruitment challenge. Indeed it may hold the trump card here, both by reason of the resources it can devote to Hispanic engagement programs and the pay premiums it can offer to talented Latino candidates. The government simply can’t keep pace on either score. The Feds aren’t empowered to offer pay incentives based on minority status, and most agencies today don’t have the budgets or staff resources to build comprehensive recruiting/retention programs targeted at the Hispanic segment.

“Geo-Demographic” Barriers

Most federal entry-level positions tend to be in the national capital region. In the District of Columbia and the two adjacent states (Maryland and Virginia), the population of Hispanics is well below that of many other regions, especially in the Southwest and California. The “hire-able” population is simply not that deep in Washington, despite some clustering of Hispanic blue-collar workers in Washington and its near suburbs. Compounding this difficulty is a disconcerting “psychographic” factor suggested anecdotally by many recruiters: young, job-seeking Hispanics in general are less inclined to relocate, because it means leaving their extended families for new positions away from home. In the absence of family ties here, a move to the Washington area for a government job may be inherently less attractive for some Hispanic-Americans.

Lack of High-level Commitment and Resources Among Individual Agencies and Departments

Let’s face it: campaigns to improve Hispanic participation in the Federal workforce simply cannot draw on the same driving momentum in society as the widespread movement for civil rights and equal opportunity for African-Americans. From the 1960s on, in fact, the federal government was the primary institutional driver behind this movement, and a natural leader in the crusade to roll back hiring barriers impeding black Americans.

But when it comes to Hispanics and other underserved minorities, there’s neither the degree of enforced commitment nor even (so far as we can tell) a deeply felt personal commitment at high levels. Without the visible presence of management champions of the cause, there’s little incentive to build real momentum for Hispanic programs within agencies. By the same token, agency funds are rarely available to mount Hispanic programming on the same scale as earlier equal opportunity initiatives centering on African-Americans (except, perhaps, where Spanish language skills are a job requirement).

Misleading Emphasis on Recruiting for Spanish-speaking Positions and Bilingual Skills

Break down the government’s current roster of Hispanic employees and you will find a disconcerting reality: they tend to cluster in public interface positions that call for fluency in Spanish, as well as in low-paying service jobs, like maintenance and food service. In the first instance — although it’s anything but pleasant to contemplate — we’re suggesting that some agencies that need to recruit aggressively for bilingual positions may unconsciously put bilingual qualifications first when they evaluate any Hispanic-American candidate. The result: they may unconsciously filter non-Spanish speaking Hispanics out of consideration for ‘mainstream’ positions that don’t require Spanish-language skills.

We realize that this element is potentially controversial, and are not suggesting that conscious prejudice plays any part in this cycle (if it exists). But we are suggesting that maybe, just maybe, unconscious habits of mind among hiring officials could be channeling Hispanic candidates into the constituent interface track and not considering them carefully enough for mainstream positions if they don’t — or even if they do — fit the bilingual mold.

Scarcity of Agency Resources to Take Comprehensive, Top-down Action

It’s the rare individual agency or department that elevates the full cycle of Hispanic recruitment, retention, and development to a top-level institutional initiative. We have encountered few agencies that have set out to elicit engaged participation from senior leadership, the agency management team, hiring managers, and their operating components, and all units in the agency HR infrastructure. An agency that adopts this kind of vertically integrated organizational strategy would have an advantage ion recruiting all diversity classes, not just Hispanic-Americans.

There’s another flavor of integration that might also help at the agency level: effectively integrating its recruitment outreach thematically by underscoring:

  • the full employment life-cycle at the agency, and
  • the agency’s commitment to productive inclusion of all diversity classes in the workplace community.

Agencies that approach the Hispanic/diversity recruitment challenge from all of these integrative perspectives, it seems to us, stand a much better chance of success than agencies that revert to standard “checklist” practices of minority hiring.

Lack of Concrete, Government-wide Initiatives for Meeting This Challenge

Up until now, agencies have tended to go it alone rather than teaming with other agencies in the Hispanic recruitment mission. While surely this is due to budgetary constraints (as well as something of a competitive dimension, owing to the perceived scarcity of Hispanic candidates), it’s a less-than-effective way to tackle the challenge. In the typical agency HR infrastructure, recruiting resources are limited and/or distributed across multiple initiatives. The result: Hispanic recruitment and retention (despite the current hue-and-cry) may not attract the urgent managerial, budgetary, and strategic attention they deserve. And while a given agency may have its share of individual champions for the Hispanic cause, it can find itself without the resources and allies to gain real purchase on the initiative.

The alternative is collective effort across agency boundaries. If insularity and inter-agency competitiveness can be set aside and budget barriers cleared, this approach could create empowering economies of scale, not to mention bringing individual, agency-based champions together on the same team, where their collective talent, energy, and enthusiasm can be harnessed and channeled.

Of course, government-wide taskforces to analyze the challenge are a critical (and-all-too familiar) first step, but up to now they haven’t demonstrated the power to implement collective solutions. Luckily, today’s Office of Personnel Management is a leading champion of collective government-wide common action among agencies. OPM is developing similar programs to coordinate recruiting pools of special talent, like technology and finance, for multiple agencies to draw on for new employees. A similar initiative for Hispanic recruiting could go far to address the current challenge.

We realize that many of the influential factors we suggest above will likely stir discussion and controversy. It’s important to regard them as topics for consideration, not hard formulas. We want to inspire more dialogue on this topic, and ultimately spur progress on this very serious challenge. Again, check out the March Journal for our proposed solutions.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Miguel Corona, D.M.

    John and Mark — Great post and thanks for all the efforts in this regard. I realize this has been an on-going issue for the federal government for many years. Having worked at the University of Texas at El Paso Career Center for almost 5 years – I took my share of “tours” of the CIA, NSA, FBI, Agriculture, and other agencies in the hopes of increasing interest amongst our high Hispanic student population. While I don’t think there was a a lack of effort on these agencies, I think the issue often included a lack of coordination and consistency. Plus at the time, it seemed the “process” took longer than students expected. Background checks for agencies such as the CIA or NSA took almost a year to complete. I emailed with John previously on your efforts, and I’m glad to see the results. I hope they provide some assistance in increasing the representation of Hispanics in the Federal workforce. Congratulations!

  2. Juan Valdez

    I can understand why many Latinos leave the Federal Government. Although many agencies do an OK job at recruiting Latinos, they do a very poor job of promoting Latinos. I have found that in my own Federal agency, there is a “Glass Ceiling” when it comes to the promotion of Latinos. Everything being equal, Latinos have to be far better educated, with greater experience and better annual evaluations, and they are still not selected for promotions. Selecting officials always find some pretext for selecting some other than a Latino. In several Federal agencies, discrimination against Latinos by the “Old Guard” is ramped and no one seems to be doing anything about it. Would you want to work for the Fed’s under these conditions… We will work you hard and long but don’t count on being promoted.

  3. Miguel Corona, D.M.

    Juan – Thanks for your insight and great points regarding the lack of promotion and representation at the higher levels of leadership. Juan, I’d be interested in your perspective as to why there is a lack of promotions aside from the evaluative illustration you’ve provided. For example, I’d be interested in getting your perspective on the lack of mentoring or affinity groups that often help drive leadership opportunties. Thanks!

  4. Mario LopezGomez

    After many years of working for the federal government I see similar factors, but the bottom line is that hiring and retaining Hispanics has not been a priority, if it had been, we would not have the low numbers. What we currently lack is a critical element in the performance appraisal of the hiring manager or supervisor as well as the head of the office or department, but that is easier said than done. I would not agree completely about the lack of personal commitment at high levels, I think there is, I’ve seen it, but at the very highest levels it is not a priority, therefore the result is the low participation. The low numbers can also be explained by the decentralized nature of federal hiring. Hiring is done to meet a specific business need so the higher diversity goal is secondary. There are other factors, one of which I call the statistical “blur.” If you look at OPM stats there’s often the measure of minority which when compared to the civilian population looks fine, so management can usually justify a good grade in diversity, but that stat “blurs” the reality that there’s over representation of other minority groups. I do agree that this is a challenge and if not met soon the hard cold reality of the growth of the Hispanic population will force the federal government to hire Hispanics –regardless of the business need– and that will not be good business. Nice article!

  5. Miguel Corona, D.M.

    Mario- You bring up some good points in your comment. I would agree with your thought about performance appraisal elements. Managers should be held accountable for their inclusion efforts, particularly when it comes to advocating Hispanic and other minorities for certain projects that lead to more opportunities or progress. I’ve heard from several people via this posting that share your perspective regarding the lack of commitment. While the effort is evident – the follow through seems to be lacking. Thanks for your insights!

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  7. Francisco Gonzalez

    It might be of significant value to revisit the history of the Americas to realize the benefit that could be derived from the presence of Hispanics in the USA. In my opinion a bureaucracy that is unable to perceive that ancestral cultural and linguistic barriers have been obstacles that have traditionally limited options for better trade and social interaction with Spanish speaking nations, would inadvertently continue to increase the number of unresolved international discrepancies and consequently will become gradually less effective.

  8. Miguel Corona, D.M.

    Francisco — Excellent points. I would extend your thoughts in the context of marketers and advertisers that have already figured out the importance of tapping this young and growing demographic. I would argue that many of the same ideas and concepts used by marketers and advertisers can be applied in attracting the Hispanic workforce to organizations. Thanks for your comments!

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  11. Luis Alonso

    I don’t know how I got to this site, but the reading is enlightened. As a Hispanic/Latino working for the Federal Government, the subject hits home, and I am afraid that I have to concur with most of the negative points in the readings stream.
    Obtaining a college education in my 30s has let me to get in the government workforce, through an internship. Everything has been a gain because I don’t have to ever harvest apples in the fields of Washington State or work on the fishing trawlers in Alaska: however, what I have to offer to the government as an educated employee has been judge by my Latino looks not my skills, so I had become an expert in the mailroom, furniture deliveries, transfer of records boxes, and the building maintenance point of contact even though my title and duties are Administrative Specialist. Throughout my Government career, I’ve managed to automatized and update many of the old ways of doing business in this agency with new technologies such intranet, MS SharePoint, scanning documents, etc., but even with all the accomplishments, it is hard to advance or get ahead. I don’t know how, but I have to fight this and stop accepting it as the norm to the agency or get out. My question is: If the agency and my supervisor didn’t know about stereotyping, they wouldn’t use me as the poster boy when higher officials visit or when I have to go to represent the agency in the career fairs and the diversity inclusion classes? Anyhow, my thoughts as a Latino govie…

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