The New Latino

Since I moved to Charlotte, I have been trying to understand how the Charlotte community views its Latino population. One way that I gauge community opinion is by the number of Letters to the Editor when Latino issues are discussed in the local newspapers.

A few months back, The Charlotte Observer published a series of articles describing how Latino workers were treated at several poultry plants in the Carolinas. Due to the poor working conditions and the repetitive work, many employees suffered incapacitating hand injuries. These Latinos were treated as “disposables.” Because there are so many of us, some companies (especially in the construction and manufacturing sectors) have the view that if one “breaks,” a substitute can be found very easily. This is predominant in areas where the skill level needed to do a job is very low or the available pool is mostly composed of illegal immigrants. I cried when I read the articles; however, letters to the editor from the Latino community were almost non-existent.

Yet when the NC Community College system stated that they would no longer admit illegal immigrants, the uproar (positive and negative) of the community was evident. Many readers agreed that letting illegal immigrants get a college education makes them assets to the community. Others responded that by doing so, we are educating these people to take over the jobs of Americans citizens. Interestingly enough, no one volunteered to take the jobs of the “disposable workforce.”

When is Charlotte’s opinion loudest: when the community is apathetic towards illegal immigrants who are exploited while preparing chicken for general consumption? Or when it denies an education to the children of the “disposable” illegals?

Why should we care at all if Latinos are ignored or embraced? There are two main reasons. The first is survival – Latinos will help replenish the upcoming workforce shortage. The second is profit – their purchasing power makes them a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s take a closer look at the Latino population in North Carolina: First of all, in this state, the illegal immigration issue is a Latino issue. In 2004, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that 80% of the illegal immigrants into North Carolina are from Mexico and Latin America. Secondly, according to a 2006 report from the UNC Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute, the state incurs a net cost of $102 a year per Latino resident (documented or not). This cost covers health care, education and corrections. Finally, Latinos are here because of supply and demand. Businesses are hiring Hispanics regardless of their legal status. The laws are clear: businesses are not supposed to hire illegal immigrants. A 2006 article by The News & Observer, however, specifies that not a single business in NC has been fined since 1999 for hiring illegal immigrants. The influx of Latinos will stop when the jobs have dried up.

But those jobs will not be disappearing any time soon. One of the biggest challenges organizations currently face is how to meet an impending employment shortage due to an aging workforce. The baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) is ready to retire in massive numbers. Unfortunately, according to Dr. James Johnson, Jr. of UNC, “Americans stopped having children in sufficient numbers to replace ourselves.”

So, where will the new workers be found? Since one in every five residents in the U.S. is Latino, it makes sense for organizations to tap into this growing population to meet their current labor needs. Companies are not only benefiting from filling a gap, but also from acquiring personnel who can lead them into the profitable Latino market. The current purchasing power of the Latino community is $700 billion, with projections of reaching $1 trillion by 2010. (To understand this number, consider that India’s economy is approaching $1 trillion, the third largest in the world).

Companies and communities, Charlotte included, must be able to understand this labor pool, help augment their skills, and develop the trust that is necessary for a successful relationship. And that trust can only be developed if we make every effort to care to convert “disposables” to assets, not only because it helps us as a nation, but because it impacts our bottom line.

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