A recent Op-Ed...

American Latinos: Still An Untapped Leadership Resource

CASABA Group, LLC

            While attending Air War College in 2002, Colonel Lisa Firmin published a groundbreaking research paper titled, “Hispanics: An Untapped Leadership Resource.”  She provided extensive data, much of it from the 1990’s, documenting “severe under-representation of Hispanic officers in the Air Force, especially in senior leadership” and argued, “greater emphasis on Hispanic officer recruiting, accessions, mentoring and development is needed.”  She also quoted the Secretary of the Air Force who stated, “…we are committed to the proposition that the senior leadership should look like America.”  So, what does senior military leadership look like today, some 25 years after the Latino gap was revealed?

Recruiting and Accession:

From 1993 to 2016, Hispanic active-duty officer representation grew dramatically across the military, increasing from 3% to 7% of the entire officer corps.  This nearly 150% jump mirrored the explosive growth of the country’s Latino population, and reflected the increasing number of Latinos graduating from 4-year colleges.  The number of Latinos graduating from the military service academies also rose significantly, averaging around 8-10% of each class, further proof of the ever-increasing competitiveness of Latino college-age students.  The Air Force Academy Class of 2018 graduated 105 Hispanics, representing 10.6% of the class.

Mentoring and Development:  

Given the substantial increase in the Latino officer population over the past quarter century, one would expect the much larger candidate pool to produce a corresponding increase in generals and admirals (i.e., flag officer).  Yet, the data shows the reverse is true.  Although the number of Latino officers has much more than doubled since the 1990s, the percentage of Latinos reaching flag officer has stagnated at about 1%--an actual decline percentage-wise.

From 2001 to 2016, there were only 4 Latino Air Force generals on active-duty, representing a miniscule ½ of 1% of the 900 or so Air Force generals that served during that timeframe.  A quick glance at the Colonel pool (from which all generals are drawn) provides even more insight--according to Firmin, in 2001 the number of Latino Colonels selected for Group and Wing Command, prerequisite positions to achieve general, was zero.  2016 data shows nothing has changed--Latinos continue to be excluded from critical Wing command positions, so it’s little surprise that Latino generals are so rare.  This pattern is also true in the other services—Latinos are rarely selected for high visibility grooming positions that often lead to flag officer promotions.  The chronic lack of effective mentoring and development is thus the dominant concern, not recruiting and accession. 

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance and implications of effective mentoring and development is by comparison:   

COMPARISON 1: US Air Force Academy Classes of 1980, 1981, and 1982

After legislation was passed enabling women to enter the service academies in 1976, the Air Force Academy graduated 260 women total in its first three classes.  These 260 women represented 0.0026 of the officer corps at that time (out of approximately 98,000 active-duty officers).  Some thirty-two years later, this tiny cohort of women produced 11 generals and 23 total stars, including the first-ever 4-star female Air Force general.  Since the Air Force was created some seventy years ago, an estimated 10,000 Hispanic officers have served but only produced 12 generals/21 total stars.  Thus, these 260 women surpassed the output of 10,000 Latinos in less than half the time, reinforcing the power of mentorship and focused development—and the absence of such.  Of note, no Latino/a has ever reached 4-star rank in the Air Force.

COMPARISON 2: Flag Officers across the Armed Forces

African-American officers represented 8% of all active-duty officers in 2016, producing 71 flag officers and 132 total stars.  Latinos represented 7% of all active-duty officers that same year, yet only produced 14 flag officers and 21 stars.  Thus, even though these two demographic segments were at near-parity in the officer corps, there was more than a 5:1 disparity in flag promotions, and more than a 6:1 disparity in total stars.  This differential has been persistent for decades. 

Given these dismal comparisons, it is difficult to argue that resolving the Latino gap that first became apparent in the 1990’s has ever been a priority for the Armed Forces.  For those who would argue the military is a meritocracy and that equitable representation be damned, there is a substantial body of evidence published by military officers and others that “meritocracy” is a myth in the senior ranks (look at the comparisons above for starters).  Regardless, the changing demographics of America demand we address this as the national imperative that it is.  As the largest, fastest growing, AND youngest demographic in the nation, America must increasingly turn to the Latino community for the foreseeable future, not just for the all-volunteer military but for its workforce, its economic vitality, and its leadership from every walk of life.  Let’s start by creating a defense advisory committee for Latinos in the services to actually drive change and move beyond the ineffective “one-size-fits-all” diversity management construct.