I. Overview

This report summarizes the major findings of a research project sponsored by the Pew Hispanic Center. The research was conducted by Maude Toussaint- Comeau of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Thomas Smith of the University of Illinois- Chicago, and Ludovic Comeau, Jr. of DePaul University. Their paper is titled “Occupational Attainment and Mobility of Hispanics in a Changing Economy” and a copy is available at the Web site of the Pew Hispanic Center (www.pewresearch.org/hispanic). The full report should be consulted for additional analysis and further details on the findings discussed in this summary report.

Hispanics and whites perform different types of work in the labor market.1 Moreover, the occupational divide between the two largest segments of the labor force appears to be widening. 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 and a growing gap with respect to whites during the 1990s. That is surprising because the decade was witness to the longest economic expansion in recent U.S. history. But even as unemployment was on the decline for all racial and ethnic groups, structural shifts in employment across industries contributed to a greater division in the occupational status of Hispanics and whites.

These findings emerge from a research project sponsored by the Pew Hispanic Center to examine the occupational status and mobility of Hispanic workers. The study focuses on the 1990 to 2000 time period and uses data from three sources—the Census Bureau, the University of Michigan, and the National Science Foundation. Comparisons of occupational status over time and across groups of workers are facilitated by the development of a composite indicator that assigns a score to each occupation based on its experience and education requirements. Another tool developed for the study is the Dissimilarity Index that provides a measure of the difference in occupational distributions across groups of workers. 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 and ethnic groups.

The key findings of the study are as follows:

  • Hispanics are concentrated in non-professional, service occupations, such as, building and ground cleaning and maintenance and food preparation and serving. The representation of Hispanics in management and professional occupations declined between 1990 and 2000.
  • Occupations in which Hispanic workers are concentrated rank low in earnings, education requirements and a general measure of socioeconomic status.
  • The occupational status of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans lags the furthest in comparison to the status of whites. Cubans and whites are comparable in occupational status.
  • A measure of occupational dissimilarity reveals an increasing degree of separation between Hispanics and whites from 1990 to 2000. Whites increased their representation in professional occupations while Hispanics trended towards construction and service occupations.
  • Changes in the structure of industries, such as the rise of the technology sectors and the decline of manufacturing, diminished the prospects for upward occupational mobility for Hispanics in the 1990s. These shifts led to a decline for Hispanics in employment in several professional occupations with high socioeconomic status.
  • Education contributes to improving the occupational status of a worker but less so for foreign-born Hispanics.
  • The length of time that foreign-born Latinos have been in the U.S. contributes to a narrowing of the gap in occupational status with respect to whites. Assimilation proceeds faster for the more educated and it is estimated that the less educated will never fully assimilate in occupational status.
  • More recently arrived cohorts of Hispanic immigrants have lower occupational status than previously arrived cohorts even if they have the same level of education and experience.
  • Looking just at the college-educated, Hispanics are found to be more likely to change occupations—either in the upward or downward direction—than other workers. Recently arrived immigrants and immigrants who do not speak English have a very high probability of switching occupations within five years.