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

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.

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