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Latino Job Seekers Find 'Born in USA' Not Enough

Employment: Despite better education and language skills, younger workers fall behind older immigrants.


Youthful dot-com millionaires personified the nation's economic boom. But the face of the recent slowdown looks a lot like Angel Casas.

Laid off from his construction job earlier this year, the Echo Park teenager still is looking for steady work. He and his unemployed girlfriend have delayed plans to marry and get a place of their own. The high school graduates have unpaid credit card bills, a $700 monthly truck payment and $30 jumbo boxes of Pampers to buy for their infant son, Angel Isaiah.

But the toughest thing, Casas said, is remaining dependent on his Mexican immigrant parents, who are working three blue-collar jobs between them despite little formal schooling. In a recessionary reversal of the American dream, many young Latinos born in the U.S. are struggling with higher unemployment than Latino immigrants, despite the advantages of generally better education and language skills.

"It's frustrating sitting at home while they're working so hard," said Casas, 18.

His mother, Silvia, said in Spanish: "How is it possible that my son has a diploma and no job?"

The U.S. recession may be shaping up to be one of the mildest on record, but it has been brutal for the youngest workers. Recent university research shows that those younger than 25 have borne the brunt of the employment decline, accounting for more than half the total job losses among U.S. adults in 2001.

The fallout can be seen in the drop-off of blue-chip company recruiters on college campuses and in the pink slips doled out to Silicon Valley twentysomethings. But the downturn has been particularly challenging for non-college-bound minorities such as Casas, who increasingly are competing with older immigrants for entry-level positions.

The most recent data compiled by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center show the U.S. jobless rate for second-generation Latinos--the U.S-born, U.S.-educated offspring of at least one immigrant parent--at 9.4%, compared with 8.7% for first-generation immigrant Latinos. In February, the overall U.S. unemployment rate was 5.5%.

With many economists predicting muted job growth in the developing recovery, employment rates for young adults, typically the last hired and first fired, aren't expected to rebound soon.

Young Latinos Future of the Labor Force

Experts say the long-term economic stakes are even higher for metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where young Latinos represent the future of the labor force. Facing stiff competition at the low end of the job market, many lack the higher education and skills to leapfrog into the middle class.

"We've got this huge labor pool that doesn't have the training and education to go where the good jobs are," said Robert Sainz, executive director of the Los Angeles Youth Opportunity Movement, which is working to boost youth employment rates in low-income neighborhoods.

Workers with less experience and seniority typically get squeezed when the job market gets tight. But researchers say the pinch has been more painful this time around.

The decline in employment among those ages 16 to 24 in 2001 totaled nearly 1.1 million workers, or 52% of the more than 2 million U.S. jobs lost last year, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. The drop was much sharper than in previous recessions, with eight years of employment gains for younger workers wiped out in just 12 months.

In California, the unemployment rate for workers 16 to 24 climbed to 11.1% in February, compared with 4.7% for workers 25 to 64.

"This has been more like a depression than a recession for workers under age 25," Sum said.

He said several factors are fueling the rise. For starters, there are more young adults entering the labor force, unlike during the early-1990s recession, when their numbers were dwindling. Young workers were heavily represented in hard-hit sectors such as temporary staffing. And there is evidence that companies starved for experienced employees during the good times now are holding on to more of that gray hair.

That has been an unwelcome surprise for job hunters such as Carlos Virgen, 21, of Lincoln Heights, who figured his greatest asset is his willingness to work cheap. Laid off from his minimum-wage retail jobs after the holidays, Virgen expected to find new work immediately. But he said the stores and warehouses where he has inquired are swamped with seasoned applicants.

"Some of them are pretty old, like around 40," Virgen said. "I think employers like them better because they have more experience."

Andre Bonyadie, a Los Angeles franchisee for Quizno's Subs, said he recently received 200 applications for 40 positions at a new downtown location. He believes in giving young people a shot, he said, but finds that many are woefully unprepared for the workplace.

"They call at quarter past 4 to tell me they'll be late for a 4 o'clock shift," he said. "A lot of them can't add or subtract--even the high school graduates."

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