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Latino progress in jobs hits blue-collar ceiling

Updated: January 20, 2012 8:02AM



You’ve heard of the glass ceiling (women) and the bamboo ceiling (Asian Americans). It turns out there’s a blue-collar ceiling for Chicago Latinos.

So says a new study from DePaul University’s New Journalism on Latino Children project and the Latino Policy Forum. They analyzed Hispanic representation in 480 occupations identified by the U.S. Census Bureau and found that both Mexican immigrants and many of their U.S.-born counterparts are overrepresented in low-skilled, low-pay manufacturing, food service, and construction industries.

Considering that Latinos represented three of every five new entrants to the region’s labor force over the past decade and that their dismal high school graduation rates — a mere 59 percent — are colliding with a time when our city is turning toward a knowledge-based economy, this is very bad news.

Bad for Hispanics, you ask?

Well, sure, no community wants to see its future rooted in jobs that either seem gone forever (new construction) or are well on their way towards extinction (manufacturing, once Chicago’s strength), especially since we’re talking about people who came to this country for economic opportunities.

Nevertheless, this lack of upward mobility must be particularly painful for parents who made countless sacrifices to come to Chicago.

This report — reinforcing others — found that at least 40 percent of U.S.-born Mexican Americans are working in the same low-paying, low-skilled industries as their Mexico-born immigrant counterparts, a trend that hasn’t budged in a decade. In fact, Latinos of Mexican origin have the lowest intergenerational mobility of any minority groups in the Chicago area.

But this isn’t just a Latino problem; it’s a Chicago regional work force problem.

Though media coverage of the Hispanic community gives the impression it’s solely concentrated in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, Latinos are scattered across the city and suburbs, comprising about 22 percent of the Chicago region’s population — double a decade ago.

The reality of this terrible tale of Mexican Americans’ failure to thrive is that if these mostly-U.S.-born Hispanics are not doing well — because they’re getting trapped in poor schools, not succeeding academically and not feeding the knowledge worker pool that Chicago needs — then we’re all in trouble.

With the exception of some efforts in the area of helping families with English-language acquisition, the solution is the same as for low-income Asian, African-American, Native American and white children: expanded access to high-quality pre-school programs and high-performing K-12 schools, and access to outreach programs that will engage them in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines needed to make it in tomorrow’s work world.

Chicago is no stranger to economic inequalities, which are usually sliced, diced and reported on through the lens of race. That way of thinking has proven ineffective when it comes to rallying the city’s entire population and business community to see what’s at stake for us all in equalizing our painful disparities.

Let’s hope that this latest round of data doesn’t get the same flash-in-the-pan treatment that other reports about various low-income groups’ struggles usually garner.

Maybe since these disappointing statistics are coming just weeks after we learned that Cook County alone lost more than a quarter of its manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010, more efforts will be launched at breaking the “blue collar ceiling” for Hispanics and all the other young, low-income Chicagoans who aren’t being prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s knowledge-based economy.



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