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A Shortage of Skills? : Analysts Fear Minorities' Education Won't Keep Pace


WASHINGTON — The new workers won't fit the new jobs.

That's the fear of economists, government experts and community officials as they peer into the future, looking at the diverse work force of the 21st Century.

Many ethnic minorities, particularly Latinos, will make up a bigger portion of the labor pool, but if current trends hold, many of them will lack the education the new jobs demand.

The economic challenge for Latinos "is starkly different from that of blacks and whites," says Ronald E. Kutscher, an associate commissioner of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 41% of Latinos do not finish high school, he noted, and the earnings prospects for those without degrees are dismal--twice the unemployment rate as that of graduates. (The high school dropout rate is 20% for African-Americans and 15% for Anglos.)

Government experts look at population numbers and make their best guesses on retirement, immigration and graduation trends, seeking to paint a statistical picture of the work force after the turn of the century.

The labor market in 2005 will still be overwhelmingly Anglo: about 73% of all workers, down from 78% now. But the Anglo population is aging, and younger faces will make up a growing share of the job-seekers. Women, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians will join the work force in significant numbers.

The biggest relative decline will be in Anglo men, who nevertheless will remain the biggest single group in the work force, 38.2% of all workers in 2005, according to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The prominence of black employees will increase slightly, from 10.7% of all workers now to an estimated 11.6%. The Asian population is growing, but will remain a small group, rising from 3.1% of the work force to 4.2%.

But the most dramatic gains nationally will be made by Latinos, who account for just 7.7% of all workers now. Nearly 9 million Latinos, including immigrants, will enter the work force by 2005, bringing their share of the working-age population to 11.2%, virtually equal to the African-American percentage.

The numbers are even more striking in California, where Latinos already make up 25% of the work force. Federal and state officials have not prepared formal forecasts of the ethnic breakdown of tomorrow's labor market, but the trends are moving powerfully upward.

In Los Angeles County, for example, where Latinos make up 55% of the population under the age of 20, their numerical domination of the work force will take place within 10 years, experts believe.

The diverse Latino community itself includes a large group that has been in California for generations, "moving along what we consider a traditional career path," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County, a nonprofit group.

But many others are recent immigrants, with comparatively little education. The newcomers and many of their children will lack skills "sufficiently diverse" to master the labor market of Los Angeles, with its plethora of high-technology work and jobs requiring extensive education and training, warns James P. Smith, senior economist at RAND, a Santa Monica think tank.

"There will be a two-tier system," he said. "The top tier will be Anglo and the bottom will be Hispanic."

Kyser predicts a period of "chaos" as companies search for ways to upgrade skills through training programs and other means.

Many jobs can be mechanized or shipped out of the United States--ironically, to Latino nations such as Mexico, warns Armando Chiapelli, chief executive of the Washington Consulting Group, which trains air traffic controllers for Los Angeles and other cities.

Chiapelli, who came to the United States from Cuba at age 14, says the Latino community must encourage its children to "leave the nest and attend college," while the state and local educational systems must "realize that Spanish is not a crime and that a kid who takes a year to learn English is not a criminal."


Southern California Gas Co. is deeply rooted in the community--its pipes, workers and customers are all a vital part of the region. As the population changes, the Los Angeles-based company is moving aggressively to adapt.

Without a high school diploma, a job applicant's chances of landing a job are virtually "null and void," says Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson, the gas company's cultural diversity manager.

"We can't relax our standards," she said, but the company also wants to ensure that growing numbers of minorities are in the pool of qualified applicants. That translates into support for dozens of community organizations, youth groups and special programs designed to spur interest in math, science and engineering. A special community-issues panel keeps the company in touch with educators, small-business officials and leaders in the African-American, Latino and Asian communities, Fontenot-Jamerson said.

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