The rapidly growing presence of Hispanics in the labor force has sharpened the interest in their economic well-being. Fueled by immigration, the Hispanic labor force nearly tripled in size from 6.1 million to 16.7 million between 1980 and 2000.1 Latinos now make up 13 percent of the labor force in the U.S., higher than the share of blacks. But the growth in numbers has not been accompanied by great success as measured by the traditional metrics of earnings and employment. The unemployment rate for Latinos remains persistently above the rate for whites and their earnings are lower than those of either whites or blacks.

The focus of this report is on the occupational status and mobility of Hispanics. Occupation is an important determinant of earnings and employment prospects in an evolving economy. And occupations often bestow a status upon workers that extends beyond mere economic outcomes. The 1990s witnessed both a record economic expansion and the emergence of an information economy. Were Hispanic workers able to take advantage of those developments to climb the occupational ladder and narrow the gap between them and whites? That is among the central questions addressed in this report.

The analysis finds considerable evidence of an occupational divide across Hispanics and whites. In particular, the occupations in which Hispanics are concentrated rank low in wages, educational requirements and other indicators of socioeconomic status. Those indicators also show a worsening in the occupational status of Latinos in both absolute and relative terms during the 1990s. That is surprising in light of the strong growth in the U.S. economy during most of that decade. But while unemployment was generally on the decline, structural shifts in employment across industries favored different groups of workers in a varying fashion. That, in turn, contributed to a greater division in the occupational status of Hispanics and whites.

The report uses three major sources of data. Foremost are the Public Use Micro Statistics (PUMS) files from the Decennial Censuses of 1990 and 2000. These large datasets are good for studying the occupational status of Hispanics in general and smaller sub-groups of immigrants based on country of origin or year of arrival in the United States. The analysis of the Census data is supplemented with the 1990 Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and the 1993 National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG). The PSID is a longitudinal data set, i.e. it follows the same panel of individuals over a period of time. The specific PSID panel used in this report features an over sample of Hispanics and covers the 1990 to 1993 time period. The longitudinal nature of the PSID provides an alternative perspective on the occupational mobility of Hispanics and the assimilation of Latino immigrants. The NSCG is a National Science Foundation database that is useful for focusing on the status of the most highly educated Hispanics. The 1993 NSCG enables a study of the occupational mobility of college graduates between 1988 and 1993.

…if more Latinos moved from production to construction occupations, does that mean an improvement or worsening in their occupational status?

The analysis of occupational status is facilitated by the development of a measure of socioeconomic status that assigns a score to each occupation based on its experience and education requirements. Such an indicator is useful because just looking at the distribution of workers across occupations does not necessarily yield the information needed to infer the direction of change in occupational status. For example, if more Latinos moved from production to construction occupations, does that mean an improvement or worsening in their occupational status? That type of question is answered in this report by comparing the socioeconomic status score across occupations. Another tool developed for the study is the Dissimilarity Index that yields a measure of the difference in occupational distributions across groups of workers. That is a useful method for summarizing the gap in the occupational distributions across workers from different racial and ethnic groups. Utilizing these and other analytical tools, the report presents a rich array of conclusions regarding the occupational distribution of Hispanics, its diversity across country-of-origin groups, changes in the distribution over time, the factors that influence the speed of those changes, and the status of Latinos relative to whites and other racial/ethnic groups.