Hispanics hold a smaller percentage of jobs in federal agencies than in the private sector, and they're not happy.
At Gilbert Sandate's retirement celebration of a three-decade career in federal service, Democratic Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a fellow Texan, rose to make a speech. In Sandate, he said, the Library of Congress was not only losing an accomplished employee, but a rare breed in the federal government: an executive of Hispanic origin. Gonzalez, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' task force on the census and civil rights, announced at the May 23 party that he and several other representatives have asked the Government Accountability Office to find out just why the Sandates of government are so uncommon.
The numbers are clear, even if the reasons for them are not. According to the Office of Personnel Management's most recent figures, in "Hispanic Employment Program Statistical Report, February 2006" Hispanics comprise 7.4 percent of the federal workforce compared with 12.6 percent of the general workforce-a five percentage-point gap. They are the only minority that is underrepresented. At the executive level, the problem is even more pronounced. Hispanics account for only 3.5 percent of senior-level federal employees and 4.6 percent of GS-13 to GS-15 managers.
Sandate spent 20 years bottlenecked as a GS-15. He applied, unsuccessfully, for about 30 Senior Executive Service positions, and bounced from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the Internal Revenue Service to the Transportation Department and finally to the Library of Congress in an effort to move up. He left government as the library's director of workforce diversity
"Reaching the SES level is without question the hardest thing imaginable," says Sandate, who has held a number of leadership roles in groups promoting Hispanic em-ployment in government and is chairman of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government. "I had so many doors slammed in my face, generally because there was always someone, ostensibly at least, better qualified."
Their scarcity at the top of government is alarming Hispanics. "Candidly, the federal government and government service has always been the door to opportunity for minorities," Gonzalez says. "We know that, and that is a historical fact. Hispanics can't really lag behind in what should be the widest and most open door. I guess the crux of it really is, wait a minute, this is probably where we have the greatest opportunity to come into the great middle class of America."
A lack of Hispanics where decisions about the allocation of federal dollars are made has repercussions beyond missed job opportunities, according to another attendee at Sandate's send-off. Jose Osegueda, an executive at the Agriculture Department, is president of the National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives. "Those decisions are more than likely being made without our input, our voice and our recommendations," Osegueda says. "We think our community will continue to have limited access to education, health care and social services" without increased Hispanic federal representation.
As the Hispanic population rapidly grows-census data has Hispanics making up a quarter of the population by 2050-the federal-civilian gap could widen. "What does it mean when you have 50 percent of the kids in Texas and 50 percent of the kids in California who are Latino in the first grade, and you have less than 3 percent representation in the Department of Education? A lack of awareness of the bilingual, bicultural issues that are facing America," says Harry Pachon, professor of public policy at the University of Southern California and a former federal employee.
OPM puts Hispanic representation in the Education Department at 4.2 percent for fiscal 2005, down slightly from the year before. Data supporting Osegueda's and Pachon's claims about funding allocation remains largely anecdotal, yet potent in the community. "Government jobs in particular are very important to our community because the government has control of the purse strings," says Brent A. Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We end up losing out on all the federal grants and opportunities that are there for the entire country." LULAC, the largest Hispanic organization in the country and one that deals with every Hispanic issue from immigration reform to civil rights, runs an annual training institute to encourage Hispanic federal job seekers.
Sandate's career illustrates the importance of having a presence in government. When he began working at the Library of Congress in 2002, he noticed that the Veterans History Project included testimony from few Hispanic veterans-a group, Sandate says, that has earned more Congressional Medals of Honor-39-than any other identifiable ethnic minority and that accounts for 13 percent of the casualties in Iraq.
"There had never been any effort to reach out to the Hispanic veteran community to try to include some of those histories in the American archives," Sandate says. "We were able to connect that program staff with some of the key Hispanic organizations." As a Hispanic executive, Sandate was there to observe the problem and had the power to fix it.
Public-private Hispanic employment disparity has caught the attention of human resources thinkers outside the Hispanic community, too. As baby boomers retire and Hispanics' numbers boom, agencies will need them, says Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service in Washington. "When you consider that [the Hispanic] talent cohort is growing very quickly, this is vital for the future of the federal government," he says. "If the federal government is going to get the talent it needs, it needs to recruit the talent that exists."
Sean Clayton, an African American who chairs the National Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers, echoes Stier. "It's . . . a survival issue, although not just the survival of a community but the survival of the nation," he says. "If you look at where the job growth is taking place and who is going to be in the workforce of the future, you are definitely going to see that one out of four new hires [is] going to be Hispanic within the next 40 years."
Keep at It
Richard Nixon was the first to address the relative dearth of Hispanics in government with his 1970 Sixteen-Point Program for the Spanish-Speaking. President Bill Clinton created an interagency task force on Hispanic federal employment in the 1990s. And yet, in 2006, the gap remains.
Demographic shifts, however, including the impending retirement wave and Hispanic population growth, have given solution-makers hope. Gonzalez's GAO report, due out at the end of July, is just one of several new looks at the issue. The Merit Systems Protection Board is initiating a set of studies on federal diversity, including focus groups and statistical surveys, and Hispanic representation is on the list. "We are concerned with why Hispanics are really the primary underrepresented group in the country," says John Crum, MSPB deputy director. "Why is that occurring? We don't really know. We may or may not get an answer. When you start this research, you don't always know what you'll find."
But Crum and his staff have some hypotheses that, if proved true, could guide a shift in how agencies approach Hispanic recruitment. One has to do with the average age of an employee hired into federal service: 35. "We think there may be assessment issues," Crum says. "The government may reward training and experience too much. Hispanics tend to be younger on average . . . does that make them less capable to do the job? Not necessarily. We may not be getting at a person's potential, but really how old they are."
In May, Stier's group released a report on rethinking college campus recruitment for federal jobs. One of the targets was Hispanics, and one of the target institutions was the University of New Mexico, picked for its high percentage of Hispanic students. The Partnership for Public Service found that of white, Asian, black and Hispanic students surveyed, Hispanics showed the highest interest in government careers, with 51 percent indicating they were "extremely" or "very interested." At the same time, they were the least knowledgeable about government opportunities, with 62 percent rated "not knowledgeable."
"There is a huge opportunity that has not been realized," Stier says.
Sandate says he had such difficulty rising in government because there were no Hispanic executives to mentor him. He has mentored about 100 up-and-coming Hispanic federal employees, calling them on the phone two or three times a week to check in. One of them became the first Hispanic, and bilingual, administrative law judge in the Social Security Administration's Office of Appeals. Sandate's son works for the Forest Service.
Not Everyone Agrees
"What we need is a comprehensive strategy developed by OPM to say that [under-representation] is an issue of concern," says Pachon, the USC professor. LULAC's Wilkes says OPM, which leads the Clinton-initiated task force and is responsible for guiding agencies' Hispanic recruitment initiatives, should demand accountability from agencies.
"I think that you had folks out there that basically were trying to go through these process objectives instead of talking about results," Wilkes says. They say, " 'Hey, we went to that LULAC conference and exhibited, we got 600 applications.' None of them got jobs, but we don't say that. 'We took a Spanish ad out in a Spanish magazine.' They talk about all the great things they're doing other than the fact there is no progress in closing the gap. You can show yourself looking busy, but [you are] really just treading water."
Legally, there is only so much OPM can do, says Antonio San Martin Jr., a lawyer in the general counsel's office who coordinates OPM's interaction with many Hispanic advocacy groups. Policies aimed at specific goals, such as parity with the civilian labor force, are not legal. "I can't show up to a conference with 50 jobs in my pocket and give them out to the people there as door prizes," San Martin says. "What we can give them is the information, the accessibility, the opportunity, the encouragement to know they will be treated fairly by the federal government. They will be treated fairly on the merits."
A June GAO report (GAO-06-214) on the intertwined roles of OPM and EEOC in guiding federal workplace diversity found managers had mixed opinions of OPM's guidance on the Hispanic issue. Forty-three percent received zero feedback from OPM on their agency's Hispanic employment initiatives. Of those who heard from the agency, only about 7 percent found the information very useful and 11 percent somewhat useful.
Not everyone believes OPM should do more. Curt Levey, a private attorney, was involved in a 2002 reverse discrimination lawsuit against the Housing and Urban Development Department. He argued HUD was discriminating against whites in order to increase minority representation, even though there was no evidence of actual discrimination against the minority groups. "The fact that the numbers are not proportionate to the population does not mean there is anything wrong," Levey says. "Different subgroups of people, whether divided by gender or race, gravitate toward different professions in different proportions. So to assume that there is something that needs to be remedied is often a fallacy."
Parity might not even be a realistic goal. Federal jobs require U.S. citizenship, something not every Hispanic working in the private sector has or needs. And many federal jobs require higher levels of education than are common among Hispanics, 57 percent of whom had high school diplomas and 11 percent of whom held bachelor's degrees, according to the 2000 census.
You can't slice it simply by race, says Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington think tank opposed to race-based preferences. "Let's suppose that the problem is that the people who have not been in the United States for as long a period of time are, for whatever reason, less likely to apply to the federal government," Clegg says, "and a disproportionate number of Hispanics are recent immigrants. Then what the federal government should do is not reach out to Hispanics qua Hispanics; what they should be doing is reaching out to recent immigrants. There are obviously lots of recent immigrants who aren't Hispanic."
The National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives, Osegueda's group, thinks otherwise, and they are not waiting around for OPM to close the gap. "What are we doing ourselves?" asks Al Gallegos, president of the Washington chapter of the association. "Not just going out there complaining. We're trying to be proactive."
The association is developing a workshop, scheduled to be rolled out in November. Current Hispanic SES members will lead it in their own agencies to help lower-level Hispanics rise to the executive corps. The workshop will focus on qualifications necessary to achieve SES positions and will help participants plan years in advance to get into the executive ranks.
The National Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers is taking things into its own hands, too. The group started the annual Hispanic Youth Symposium, which this year will host 550 high school students for three days at sites in California, Maryland and Washington. A joint effort with funding from corporations such as Kaiser Permanente and BB&T bank, its aim is to plant the seeds of federal service early. "We first [have] got to build a legacy of education for these students, ensuring that they believe in college," says Jeffrey Vargas, an Energy Department employee and former head of the council. "And then provide the bridge between education and careers."
Some of the innovation comes from within agencies. The Social Security Administration has 12.5 percent Hispanic representation, right on par with the private sector, and 7.9 percent in the SES. What's the SSA's secret? Felicita Sola-Carter, assistant deputy commissioner for human resources and the first female Puerto Rican senior executive in the agency, says it is leadership commitment, workforce planning, aggressive recruitment and a business case hinged on diversity. "We set out to represent the public we serve," Sola-Carter says. "That really has been our mantra."
SSA seeks employees fluent in Spanish to eliminate the need to hire translators, making the agency more efficient. Sola-Carter says Hispanic employees also have community connections, which help in reaching out to customers. SSA uses field offices as recruitment tools and its Hispanic employees as recruiters. The agency also has a Hispanic advisory council that meets periodically to suggest how to better serve this group. SSA actively recruits on college campuses with heavy Hispanic representation such as California State University at Los Angeles, and engages in national ad campaigns.
Sola-Carter, who began her career in 1971 in an SSA field office in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, says, "We have come a long way from occasionally showing up at a college fair with a few handouts and a few applications for employment."
Much of the rest of government still is catching up.