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Economic recovery may not be colorblind when it comes to jobs

Patrice Gibbs has been looking for a full-time job for three years and estimates he’s sent out about 500 resumes.

Gibbs, a 50-year-old black man with decades of experience in the printing industry, believes he has the skills, work ethic and background to land a good job, but he suspects his race may be part of the reason his job search has hit a wall.

“I have a pretty good race radar so I can pick up on certain attitudes,” he explained. “Race is part of it, most definitely.”

Indeed, Gibbs is a member of one of the Great Recession’s hardest hit groups in Delaware and throughout the nation – black men.

The U.S. unemployment rate among adult white males was 7.9 percent in April, up from 4.1 percent three years ago but down from 9.3 percent in the same month last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Compare that to the jobless rate of 17.0 percent among black men, down from 17.7 percent a year ago but more than double the rate of 8.4 percent three years ago. In Delaware, white males saw their jobless rates drop to 8.6 percent last year, from 9 percent in 2009, while the rate was 14 percent among black men in 2010, down from 15.7 percent in the previous year. (Note: The sample size for BLS Delaware data on these populations is small and unpublished data.)

“As the saying goes, when white America gets a cold, the black community gets pneumonia,” said Leland Ware, the Louis L. Redding Chair and Professor for the Study of Law & Public Policy at the University of Delaware.

There are a host of factors driving the problem, including lower education levels attained by blacks, and issues related to poverty and a high density of blacks in inner cities hit hard by the recession, but it’s also discrimination “both conscious and unconscious,” Ware added.

Discrimination charges in the state hit a five-year high of 728 claims filed in fiscal year 2009, and race bias made up more than 50 percent of those cases, according to the Delaware Employment Law Blog.

Cassandra Hopkins, who runs the jobs training program for Professional Staffing Associates Inc. in Claymont and has worked with many unemployed and underemployed black men, has seen this first hand. “I’ve just been amazed,” she said about the lack of job prospects for black men from all walks of life. “Even those that have something to offer organizations, they just don’t get a shot.”

The gap in unemployment numbers for white and black males is nothing new for the state, according to George Sharpley, economist and chief of the Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information for the Delaware Department of Labor. “When you go back years ago when the economy was doing well, even then they (black males) typically had unemployment rates that were double that of white males,” he noted, adding that this recession is no different.

White males, he continued, were the biggest losers during this recession when you look at declines percentage wise; but black men have had a tougher time coming back after the downturn, as is typical for this group.

Sharpley also pointed to the high number of black males concentrated in urban areas as a reason for the disparity. For example, New Castle County has a jobless rate of 8.1 percent, compared to 12.1 percent for the City of Wilmington; and Kent County has a rate of 8 percent, compared to 9 percent in Dover.

Another issue is the high incarceration rate among black men, he noted, which can be a real obstacle for those seeking employment in this tight job market.

Employers can be picky today because there is a big applicant pool for every job; as many as four people apply for every job opening, according to some estimates. Having a record, or even credit problems, can mean a job applicant goes to the bottom of the pile.

Across the country employers have increased credit and criminal background checks during this economic downturn for all types of jobs, not just those where workers would be handling money, and the practice has hurt minority candidates. The federal government has seen this trend as detrimental to minority groups and as a result the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been cracking down on the use of such reviews. But human resource experts say the practice continues at many hiring organizations.

Lack of education, including basic reading skills, also hampers job prospects for many of the black men Professional Staffing Associates work with. “Some have very poor English and grammar, and an inability to read past a 5th grade reading level,” Hopkins said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about race, class and poverty,” said Yasser Arafat Payne, assistant professor, Black American Studies at the University of Delaware who is heading up the Participatory Action Research program, a project funded by federal dollars and the United Way, looking at the causes of crime and violence in Wilmington’s city neighborhoods and at a host of issues including employment. “It’s all set up where certain populations benefit and certain populations don’t.”

Payne believes a lack of opportunities is one of the biggest hurdles for black men. “A lot of times the opportunities we have available are typically demeaning,” he said, referring to low-paying fast food jobs in particular. “Most folks don’t want to do that in or out of the black community.”

What he’s found in his research of Wilmington East Side neighborhoods is that black men are highly motivated and want to work, but often become trapped on the lower end of the socio economic ladder and have been deprived of a good education. “We have to have a serious conversation around jobs and schools,” Payne maintained.

People of all races with limited education took a big hit during this recession, said Ed Ratledge, Director, Center for Applied Demography & Survey Research at the University of Delaware. “Functionally, the long term trend is basically that the lower you are on the education spectrum the worse condition you’re going to be in, with fewer jobs for you,” he said. “Everything we’re seeing right now shows us that employers are looking for highly educated people.”

But education can be more than just a four-year degree, says Garland Hayward, a former teacher from Delmar Middle & Senior High School who retired in 2008 after thirty years. All this focus in schools today on science and technology has taken away from teaching students about vocational trades and that’s hurt both blacks and whites in this economy. “Not everyone is going to be a scientist,” he quipped.

Delaware Technical & Community College with campuses in Dover, Georgetown, Stanton and Wilmington reports it has actually seen a 12 percent increase in enrollment among black men from 2009 to 2010, after being flat the previous year.

Regan Hicks-Goldstein, Dean of Student Services at Delaware Technical & Community College, Stanton/Wilmington campus, says black joblessness could partly be due to some job seekers not having the networking, leadership and communications skills needed to land a job. The school provides a mentoring program called the Vanguard Society to help build such critical career skills, she said. “The main thing we do is talk about common barriers,” she said, and help the men in the program, mostly African American and Latinos, “find a voice.”

However, Gibbs who’s been looking for work for some time and is living with a cousin because he could no longer afford his apartment, doesn’t believe it’s a lack of skills keeping him from employment since he’s been gainfully employed before, has a GED, has no criminal record and spent four years in the Air Force. While he thinks race has played a role, he says his age and his dreadlocks may also be hindering him.

He’s not giving up though. He’s still sending out resumes on major job boards and attending job fairs, which he admits he’s come to hate. During a recent job fair he interviewed with a copier company and thought he was perfect for the firm because after 20 years in the printing business he knows everything about copiers.

Unfortunately, he said, the hiring manager “frowned a lot and acted like I was wasting his time. He said, ‘I’ll put your resume on file and if anything fits I’ll let you know.’” Not surprisingly, Gibbs noted, he hasn’t called.