A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action

Much has been written about the Hispanic underrepresentation challenge during the last thirty years. Multiple blue ribbon commissions, tiger teams, you name-it task forces have tried to tackle this behemoth. Voluminous strategic plans and reports have documented the steps that need to be taken to get a handle on this issue – only to sit idle collecting dust on bookshelves. Democratic and Republican administrations have made empty promises in the past that remain unfulfilled. Pre-Adarand decisions, which made it easier to establish goals to hire more Hispanics, and post-Adarand court rulings, which made it much harder, have been rendered without much progress for Hispanics. Pollyannish and pugnacious national themes have been chosen for National Hispanic Heritage Month to convey the fierce urgency of the need for a call to action.

And yet, the Hispanic representation in the federal workforce has increased by an average of less than 1 percent from 2000 through 2008, while the Hispanic representation in the civilian labor force keeps going up. An anomaly took place when the Hispanic representation stayed flat at 8% from 2008-2009, primarily because the number of Hispanic new hires into the permanent workforce decreased from 9.2% to 7.3%. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that the gap between the Hispanic representation in the federal labor force and the civilian labor force is staying flat or increasing slightly – despite all the remedial steps described in the previous paragraph.

I think that this challenge has reached chronic proportions. While many have jumped to quick fixes, few have articulated the “why(s)” this country cannot afford to ignore this challenge any more. Let’s look at some of the reasons why we cannot neglect this predicament.

The Hispanic population is much younger than the population as a whole, with a median age of 27 years in 2008, compared with 36 for the total U.S. population. Moreover, thirty-four percent of the Hispanic population is under 18 and 6 percent age 65 or older, while the corresponding percentages for the total population are 24 percent and 13 percent. If, like Chief Performance Officer for the U.S. Government Jeffrey Zients recently said in March of 2010, “nearly half the government’s workforce will be eligible to retire in the coming decade,” Hispanics represent an untapped resource to ensure the continuity of government services in the future.

With 46.9 million (15 percent) Hispanics in the U.S. population, as of July 2008, who pay taxes regardless of their legal status, it is incumbent on federal agencies to employ Hispanics to address the challenges posed by this community and to understand the cultural nuances when framing solutions.

Forty-one Hispanics have received the Medal of Honor in the past – the highest award for valor in action which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Forces of the United States. Hispanics have defended this country from the very beginning. If they have risked their lives in the battlefield, they deserve to be represented in the halls of power of the Federal Government.

Federal agencies are better able to serve their Hispanic customers by having Hispanic on their staffs. I remember reading about the airline that issued a Spanish-language ad to promote its new and more comfortable seats. The English text of the ad read “when you fly with us, you fly in leather.” Its Spanish translation, made by a non-Spanish speaking employee, was “when you fly with us, you fly naked.” Or the story about the U.S. Postal Service recalling 70 million commemorative stamps, celebrating Latin dances, because of incorrect Spanish accent marks -- at a cost of $172,000. And a reputable magazine like Time describing Jennifer Lopez as the “Bronx-born daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants,” while ignoring the fact that Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. All of these examples show the heavy costs incurred by companies and federal agencies when they lack Hispanic employees who can communicate clearly in the language of their customers, and who can understand their cultures and histories. These vignettes should convince those metrics-obsessed gurus that there are consequences for having a non-diverse workforce.

Federal agencies are better equipped to recruit, hire, promote, and retain Hispanics now that they only make 15 percent of the U.S. population, rather than when they are 30 percent of the population by 2050 -- and there will not be enough non-Hispanic employees to train them. If the unemployment rate increases for the largest minority group in the country, there will be less funds allocated in the federal budget for programs and initiatives to stay competitive in a global economy.

Hispanics expect politicians not take their votes for granted. 67 percent of Hispanics voted for the Obama/Biden ticket in 2008, while Republicans strategists are urgently trying to woo back Hispanics to their camp. Like former Congressman Henry Bonilla (R-TX) recently told a Washington Post reporter “If you don’t go out and bring more Hispanics to our party, the math isn’t there to win, no matter what the other side does.” With the Hispanic vote is up for grabs, Hispanics expect results.

Thus, with Hispanics getting fired up by the lack of progress and accountability, they will let the numbers do the talking in the future.

Jorge E. Ponce is the co-chair of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives.