After being unemployed since December 2014, Akim St. Omer thought that the February’s typical hiring drag would pass by spring. Most schools, whether private or public, usually slow down on hiring during February to decide on returning staff contracts, then resume hiring by March and April. He lost his job as a program coordinator at Harlem Children’s Zone after spending cuts forced the after school center to cut positions. He spent nine months looking for work before he was hired by the Dalton School as the diversity coordinator.
“With the economy shifting, more people are about shifting their job positions as well,” he said.
In April, the black unemployment rate was 9.6 percent, down from 10.1 percent in March. It decreased nearly a whole percentage point since February, and has continued to decline since then. In the first quarter of 2015, the black unemployment rate has declined to pre-recession levels in six states that previously held some of the highest in the country.
However, the decline in the unemployment rate is not slight, but pretty large. The jobless rate for blacks has consistently been nearly three times that of white workers before and during the recession, and roughly twice that post-recession. The unemployment rate for white workers in April was 4.7 percent.
These state of affairs is primarily due to the decline of manufacturing jobs, particularly in urban areas, the struggle black college students face in finding employment, and most of all, racial discrimination.
As a result, unemployment in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, whose workers once dominated the manufacturing sector, have seen the worst rates of black unemployment. Detroit, whose population is 82% black, has the highest rate because manufacturing jobs at car factories like Toyota are now gone. Both states have high populations of black residents that are likely to remain unemployed.
“You’ll find a high black unemployment rate because that’s largely who remains in the city,” said Valerie Wilson, the director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE).
Low-wage jobs are more volatile because of cyclical employment changes. Black workers primarily fall into four categories: nursing and home health aides (comprise 25%), bus drivers (27%), and security guards (27%). These four professions are relatively low-earning ones: nursing and home health aides earn an annual salary of $25,020 and $22,400 respectively, bus drivers earn $32,190, and security guards earn $28,080.
Education is a key factor in jobless rates: black males still graduate from high school at a lower rate than whites do. Compared to those with less than a high school education, better-educated workers have greater access to less cyclically sensitive and higher-paying occupations in service and skilled trade. Low-wage jobs are more volatile because of cyclical changes in employment.
College students still face hiring problems even after graduation because their lack of professional experience is less attractive to employers than older workers with more experience and a broader skill set. In addition, many black students are the first in their families to matriculate from college, which provides them with less networking opportunities compared to those who come from families where both parents are college-educated.
“Especially when there’s a slack labor market, relatively new african american graduates take longer to find employment,” she said.
Albeit a 72% increase in college enrollment among blacks, job prospects don’t improve after graduation.
According to a 2014 report released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, black college graduates have the highest rate of underemployed workers, those who graduate with a degree that are unable to find work in their field of study, with an underemployment rate of 11.5 percent compared to only 5.7 percent of white graduates. They have the largest increase in underemployed workers with an 8 percentage point increase since 2003, and a 7.1 percentage point increase since the start of the recession in 2007.
In the fast-growing sectors of STEM professions, only 7 percent of African-american students obtained a degree within a related field in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Black students are less likely to choose a STEM major because of the long time perception of math and science being too difficult. In the south and midwest, 77% of blacks attend with predominantly black students. These underfunded schools make up a significant portion of undereducated students, which hinders their confidence to pursue a career in STEM.
Degrees in majors with high-paying jobs are helpful, but still not enough to improve hiring rates for black workers.
“Getting a degree isn’t solving the problem for black employees,” said Judith Fields, a labor economics professor at Lehman College. “Students who choose majors with high-paying salaries are having trouble finding jobs in their field of study.”
Chantel Gordon, a graduate student at Drexel University was unemployed for six months after graduating from Smith College in 2012. Though she majored in pre-med and engineering, she wasn’t able to find a job in either field because most of the available positions were offered to prospective employees with more experience or competing applicants that had hiring connections through family. Ms. Gordon is now enrolled in a BS/MD program at Drexel University’s College of Medicine to become an obstetrician.
“I tried applying at several hospitals right after graduation, but none of them hired me,” she said. “I ended up finding a tutoring job until I started graduate school last August. Hopefully that improves my job prospects.”
Less affluent social networks are a huge factor in black unemployment. 91 percent of CEOs are white and 90 percent of management positions are held by white workers. In her 2013 book “The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism”, Nancy DiTomaso claims that informal networks allow whites to keep a racially homogenous workplace by offering job positions to family and friends instead of a qualified black worker.
“It is definitely true that who you know is very important for finding jobs,” said Alec Levenson, research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “People who are going to college for the first time don’t have those kinds of connections.”
A 2003 study done by sociologist Devah Pager showed that white applicants with criminal records were more likely to receive callbacks compared to similarly qualified black applicants with clean records. In Milwaukee, black prospective employees were less than half as likely to receive a callback than qualified whites.
“A Bachelor’s degree has value, but this is not about effort,” said Judith Fields, a labor economics professor at Lehman College. “Discrimination remains a major feature of the labor market. The threat is corporations allowing this behavior to continue on an individual level.”
To get a visual sense of black unemployment, click here.