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Let's look at another city in transition, as we've been doing all week. One of the biggest changes in the last three decades is the arrival of Hispanics, in large numbers. In Arizona, for instance, the Hispanic population has more than quadrupled. Many came for the jobs, and what was a fast growing economy before the recession. The state is now struggling to regain its economic footing, yet foreign born workers are gaining jobs back more quickly than native born people. NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Phoenix.
TED ROBBINS: This is a tale of two workers. Both in Phoenix and both struggling to find work since the recession. Mareena Sweat was a business analyst. Her job was to improve efficiency for the worldwide shipper DHL.
Ms. MAREENA SWEAT: I spent 12 years there and I probably would still be there, if they hadn't had to, you know, reduce the workforce.
ROBBINS: Luis Valantan was in construction, working on concrete foundations and walls.
Mr. LUIS VALENTAN: The companies were like, we have no more jobs so try to look for another job guys, good luck.
ROBBINS: Mareena Sweat is a native of the U.S. She was born in Phoenix. Luis Valantan was foreign-born, a native of Mexico City. That single difference makes it statistically more likely that one will find work before the other. Let's look at their situations.
I met Mareena Sweat at her home in Phoenix's suburban East Valley. We sat at her kitchen table while her five dogs wandered in and out. She spends her days applying for jobs online and going to occasional interviews.
Ms. SWEAT: I would like to be around, you know, $25 an hour, somewhere around there, what I was making before. You know, at this point, anywhere $15 and up I could see taking job doing that.
ROBBINS: Right now, she's collecting unemployment. She calculates that works out to six dollars an hour. While she looks, she's enrolled in a part-time online MBA program. She could move to another city for work, but she says her entire support system is in Phoenix her partner, her friends, her elderly mother.
Ms. SWEAT: I hate to say this. I'm 43 years old and I still can say hey mom, you know what, I have a bill that's due and I dont have any money, can I have $50? Vell(ph), my mom's German vell, I don't know, OK, come get it.
You know, she's always there for me.
ROBBINS: Luis Valentan's support system isn't that strong. I met him in Central Phoenix at Tonatierra, a Hispanic and Native American community center. He came to the U.S. for work at 16. He moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix six years ago because of the construction boom here. Then in 2008 the bottom dropped out.
Mr. VALENTAN: Well, at the time I was like really worried about it. I was really scared, you know, because I'm a single father with three kids.
ROBBINS: He can't collect unemployment, he has no papers. He knows how to fix cars, so he turned to that, but he says people are putting off maintenance and repairs. So he began carrying his tool kit in his car to help motorists stopped by the side of the road.
Mr. VALENTAN: I help this guy and he gave me $20 just to help him out changing his tire, so that was a pretty cool idea for me and I said I'm going to stop every time I see a car on the freeway, especially, you know?
ROBBINS: He's been offered a part-time job installing car alarms for $30 a day. He says he'll take it.
Ms. MARIA ECHEVESTE (director, Labor Departments wage and hour division during Clinton administration): I think it's flexibility and a certain desperation.
ROBBINS: Maria Echeveste was head of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division during the Clinton Administration. She says flexibility and desperation are two reasons foreign-born workers are getting jobs, especially low skilled-workers and people illegally in the country.
Ms. ECHEVESTE: If they don't have a safety net for food and housing, they're going to be scrambling to try to find any job, at whatever price, under whatever conditions.
ROBBINS: Foreign born workers tend to be younger, and younger people in general are more flexible. But flexibility is only part of it. Foreign-born workers may be recovering from the recession sooner because they suffered from it earlier. Researcher Rakesh Kochhar says Hispanic construction workers, for instance, lost their jobs an average of nine months earlier than U.S. born workers.
Mr. RAKESH KOCHHAR (researchers): And often the harder, you know, the ball bounces down, the harder it seems to rebound sometimes.
ROBBINS: Kochhar is a researcher with the Pew Hispanic Center. He's the one who first crunched the numbers and spotted the trend that foreign-born workers were recovering faster. Kochhar thinks it's a short-term trend which will even out. But he says, the workforce also seems to be changing long-term. Younger foreign-born workers are replacing aging native-born workers. That could account for some of the tension in the Phoenix area over immigration. And Kochhar says there's another trend affecting middle-class workers of all kinds.
Mr. KOCHHAR: There is research suggesting that more and more, the U.S. economy is creating jobs, not in the middle of the skill spectrum, but more at the low end and the high end. People are calling this job polarization.
ROBBINS: That hurts those traditionally in the middle: native-born workers like Mareena Sweat.
Ms. SWEAT: Even with my experience, even with my education, even with my skill set, you know, there's so many other people that have exactly what I have.
ROBBINS: Still, she says she is optimistic she'll find good work and she hopes they MBA she's working toward helps her do it. While those without access to education or government help continue to take any job they can get.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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