Why Are Latinos Leading Blacks In The Job Market?

The booming Hispanic labor force turns out to have an unexpected side effect: Latinos are outperforming blacks in the job market. Part of the reason stems from the fact that many Hispanics have less education or are vulnerable illegal immigrants willing to work for less pay. Economic and cultural factors play a role, too, say some experts, such as Latino immigrants' higher willingness to change cities to find a job. Add it up, and "many are hired to do work that blacks once had," says the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

No question, Latinos have fared better in the job market recently. Despite the recession and the jobless recovery, their employment has surged by 27% since 1999, to 17.4 million last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (charts). Meanwhile, the number of employed blacks fell by 400,000 over this period, to 14.7 million. True, the Hispanic jobless rate has climbed two percentage points since its 2000 low, to 7.7% last year. That's because Latinos have entered the labor force to look for work at a faster pace than jobs have become available. Of course, Hispanics are highly diverse, so the total stat masks the 10% jobless rate for Puerto Rican men, for example, vs. a 6% rate for Cuban men, who tend to have more education. Still, black joblessness not only has been higher than the Latino average for years but has also jumped more: three percentage points since 2000, to 10.8% last year.

Why such differences, even though there are roughly the same number of blacks and Hispanics in the U.S.? Chalk most of it up to the several hundred thousand Latinos pouring into the U.S. every year, mostly from Mexico. While many head for neighborhoods where they know someone, others have no established roots and are freer to chase jobs from California to North Carolina.

Hispanics are also more likely to work in industries that have defied economic malaise, including agriculture, construction, and services such as laundry and landscaping. Construction has added 670,000 jobs in the past three years as builders kept pace with booming demand. Fully 12.5% of employed Hispanics work in construction, while only 4.7% of blacks do.

Meanwhile, blacks have a long history of disproportionate employment in manufacturing, finance, and government -- all hit hard in recent years. Over 10% work in manufacturing, which shed nearly 1 million jobs in the past year. While 13% of Latinos work in factories, too, blacks are focused in much harder-hit durable goods such as cars, steel, and electronics. So they suffered factory-job losses of almost 500,000 since December, 2000, while Latinos, who tend to work in less affected industries, such as food processing, lost only 65,000 factory posts.

Latinos' willingness to work for less pay may play a role in their faster hiring rate, too. At $440, the average weekly earnings of Hispanics are nearly 15% less than what blacks make and 31% less than whites. A lot of that reflects Hispanics' lower educational levels. More-educated blacks have walked away from the $9 an hour offered to entry-level workers by Canyon Fireplace in Anaheim, Calif. But Hispanics "take it and run," says owner Robert D. Lewis. The outcome: More Latinos than blacks are rising with the employment tide.

By Roger O. Crockett in Chicago

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