US Economy

We Must Prepare Latino Workers for the Digital Economy

October 15, 2020  • Domenika Lynch, Hector Mujica, Sonja Diaz &

Hispanic Heritage Month is a time when Latinos celebrate our cultural values and share our heritage. We tell the stories of the leaders who paved the way for us and those among us today who are making meaningful changes at the root of what we read, think, and do. This month we have come together—a DC-based policy institute, a major research university, and a tech company—to issue a new challenge to industry, policymakers, and educational training institutions alike.

While we each as individuals have personal stories of our journeys as an immigrant, first-generation American, and multi-generational American, we are bound by common threads in the values we were brought up with: we come from and are ourselves, thrivers. COVID-19 has revealed and reinforced the grit and perseverance of US Latinos. We recognize ourselves in the essential workers who held up the supply lines during the darkest moments of the pandemic, the students who seek out free Wi-Fi to connect to classes, and the business owners who pivoted their services to keep employees on the payroll.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, we are sober about what we are celebrating. The pandemic trifecta—a public health crisis, a contracting economy, and a moment of racial reckoning—has exacerbated social inequities, leaving many Latino families in economic despair. About 59% of Latinos live in households that have experienced job loss or pay cuts due to the coronavirus outbreak, compared to 43% of US adults. Many more remain at high risk due to the overrepresentation of Latinos in industries that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  To compound the problem, the pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of industries with high concentrations of Latino workers, changes which are here to stay.  Continued job displacement due to automation in the Latino community is disconcerting for economic recovery and necessitates immediate fact-based interventions.

This month, the UCLA Latino Politics and Policy Initiative released a report which found barriers to educational access and digital technology are preventing Latinos from acquiring the skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century: It is both a call for caution and opportunity.

The US economy needs its Latinos to prosper, and to prosper, the economy must integrate these workers into the digital economy.

The fact is that Latinos are the future of America and inextricably tied to recovery. We are 60 million strong, with a median age of 30 years, and contribute $2.6 trillion annually to the US economy. Latino contributions to the US economy are essential to support the many social safety nets aging white Americans depend on to retire with dignity. Latinos account for nearly 17% of the American workforce and are the fastest-growing share of the labor force, projected to become nearly 30% of the total US population by 2060. And yet, UCLA’s report urgently warns that 7.1 million Latinos, representing almost 40% of the Latino workforce in just six states, are at high risk of being displaced by automation despite this projected growth. Jobs aren’t going away, they are transforming, and we must meet the moment and ensure that Latinos are prepared for the transformation.

The US economy needs its Latinos to prosper, and to prosper, the economy must integrate these workers into the digital economy. All Americans deserve a quality of life with dignified work—livable wages, and a chance at economic mobility. For far too long, Latinos have remained the essential bottom. We have an economic urgency to change the occupational trajectory of the Latino workforce—current and future. Otherwise, existing exclusionary practices will continue to leave the majority of US Latinos behind and in the lower rungs of an occupational caste system.

We are determined to catalyze change. Thanks to a $250,000 grant from Google.org, the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society program will convene tech executives, government representatives, Latino advocacy organizations, colleges and universities, and regional training centers to galvanize and organize a Latino upskilling movement. We call for public, private, and nonprofit sectors to collectively create pathways for Latino inclusion into the digital economy. We seek reskilling and upskilling commitments that include critical wrap-around services to ensure that Latino workers can successfully complete workforce development training guaranteeing competitive digital jobs.

To provide a safety net for Latinos who will be displaced by digitalization and provide them with the skills required to succeed in a 21st-century economy, the UCLA report includes the following policy recommendations:

  1. Modernize unemployment insurance programs to expand eligibility to all workers and fund worker retraining initiatives.
  2. Grow and design apprenticeship and career-pathways programs tailored to Latinos that provide employable and transferable skills, knowledge on job searching and hiring, and direct connections with potential employers.
  3. Invest in providing Latinos access to digital technologies and expanding broadband access.
  4. Increase Latino representation, retention, and graduation in institutions of higher education through affirmative action, robust financial aid, and integrated social welfare programs to support housing, food security, health care, and other service needs.

The future is uncertain, and it always will be. US Latinos have the grit and the fortitude to push forward. There is a Spanish adage “al mal tiempo, buena cara”—“in bad times, a brave face”—we will remain optimistic and dogmatic about our Latino community prospects of success. It is, after all, the American way; to forge ahead rebuilding together. We can foster a good society, doing so by collectively building an inclusive digital economy that works for all Americans.

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