Latinos: Your Government Needs You

True or false? The federal workforce is more diverse than that of the private sector.

Believe it or not, the answer is false, at least when it comes to the Hispanic/Latino community. While Hispanics/Latinos account for 13 percent of the US population and 12 percent of the private job sector, Hispanic/Latino employees comprise less than 7 percent of the federal workforce.

What accounts for this lag in Hispanic/Latino representation? For decades, apologists of the federal government pointed to high numbers of illegal Hispanic/Latino immigrants as well as low levels of education among the Hispanic population. Recently, though, these old assumptions have largely fallen by the wayside.

"Even if you control for these factors, Hispanics/Latinos are still heavily underrepresented," says Charles Kamasaki, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic/Latino advocacy group. Likelier barriers to Hispanic/Latino federal employment are:

  • Lack of Communication: "The federal government hasn't done as good a job as it needs to in reaching everyone," says Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group dedicated to revitalizing federal civil service. According to Stier, government agencies as well as Hispanic/Latino leaders need to work harder to inform the Hispanic/Latino community, both about specific job opportunities as well as some facts about federal employment in general. For instance, while many people may believe federal employment means relocating to Washington, DC, the truth is that 88 percent of federal jobs exist outside the beltway, and many of those are nonpolitical in nature.
  • Hiring/Job-Seeking Practices: "People tend to hear about jobs through kinship and friendship networks," says Kamasaki. Likewise, he points out that employers tend to hire through those same networks. Needless to say, this doesn't bode well for boosting Hispanic/Latino employment in the federal ranks, since there are so few Hispanics/Latinos there to begin with. Nor does the fact that the government tends to advertise many of its jobs internally, rather than to the community at large.
  • Demographics: The Hispanic/Latino community is one of the youngest in the United States, with fully a third of Hispanics/Latinos under age 18. "It's going to take a decade or more for many Hispanics/Latinos to become full-fledged members of the job pool," says Larry Gonzalez, director of the National Association of Hispanic/Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
Despite these barriers, it's clear the federal government has finally begun to waken from its slumber and realize the importance of recruiting Hispanics/Latinos for federal positions. Although there is growing consensus that government personnel should reflect the diversity of the population at large, the federal government also faces a difficult situation: Within the next five years, half of the federal workforce is set to retire. "This is a human-capital crisis," says Gonzalez. "And there doesn't appear to be a succession plan in place."

In response to these various concerns, President Clinton issued an executive order demanding that federal agencies change their hiring practices to include more Hispanics/Hispanic/Latinos. President George W. Bush has followed suit, even going so far as to fill many high-profile slots with Hispanics/Hispanic/Latinos. And at a recent meeting of the National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao had this to say:

"We hear you -- you are underrepresented in the federal workforce, and we will work harder to meet this challenge." A nine-point plan is currently in place to reform federal hiring practices.

Kamasaki welcomes the plan but claims it doesn't go far enough in driving change. "It's more symbolic than anything else," he says. "Executive orders, nine-point plans, these are things that should have been done 20 years ago." Kamasaki is in favor of a carrot-and-stick approach, in which individual agency improvement is rewarded, and lack of improvement is met with public disclosure and even litigation.

All of this begs the question: Why should anyone, Hispanic/Latino or otherwise, want to work for the government? Altruism aside, says Stier, "you can do things in the federal government you can't do anywhere else. You are given opportunities to make a difference, as well as to gain an experience base that makes you more marketable. It's a great career builder."

Visit's Government & Law Enforcement Center for opportunities in the government sector.

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