In January, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter he was “so happy” about the unemployment rate for black Americans dropping to 6.8 percent for the first time in 45 years.
Following the announcement were streams of reports and commentaries from research institutions and media organizations nationwide. Each report highlighted the improved labor market participation for the black community.
Among those institutions was the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which mentioned in a recent report that the jobless rate for black Americans in the state decreased to a “historic low” of 6.9 percent in February. By May, that rate had dropped again, to 6.1 percent.
But while the unemployment rate for black residents has seen a significant decline in recent years — in 2011, it reached a high of 25 percent — it still lags significantly behind the overall unemployment rate in Minnesota, which now stands at 3.1 percent.
Which is why Shawn Lewis, a Twin Cities expert on workforce development, and others want to shift the focus from celebrating the current 6 percent unemployment rate among black Minnesotans to doing more to help connect those unemployed to meaningful job opportunities.
“It’s nice that things are trending in a better direction,” Lewis said, “but our nation has been way too tolerant about having higher levels of black unemployment.”
The need for intentional approaches
The unemployment rate among blacks Americans has long been higher compared to other racial or ethnic groups in the U.S. A 2010 study by the Economic Policy Institute, for example, showed that black residents in the Twin Cities area — as in many major cities across the nation — were about three times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts.
That isn’t always because blacks in the workforce tend to be younger and less educated than whites. Discrimination remains a factor, since blacks with similar levels of education as whites are more likely to be unemployed. “African Americans with a high school diploma or GED were three times as likely to be unemployed as whites with the same level of education,” the study notes. “Even if blacks had the exact same educational profile as whites in Minneapolis, they would still have a much higher unemployment rate.”
Beyond racial discrimination, black jobseekers face unique institutional barriers that keep them out of the hiring process. Even if some companies want to diversify their workforce, Lewis noted, the hiring managers aren’t often successful in tapping into potential candidates of color.
That’s because the managers of the most companies in the U.S. tend to be white, and oftentimes they rely on their personal and professional networks to fill job vacancies. This means the employees they end up selecting will look like them.
To address that, many employers in the Twin Cities have been working closely with educational institutions, nonprofits and government agencies to train and recruit candidates.
This kind of collaboration, however, has mostly focused on those seeking low-skill positions in construction, manufacturing and health care industries, which are experiencing a workforce shortage.
Success depends on all Minnesotans participating in the workforce
To increase participation for black job seekers of all levels of education and skills, said Clark Goldenrod, a senior policy analyst at the Minnesota Budget Project, there must be intentional and direct approaches to dismantling structural and systemic barriers. That includes creating an adequate public education system that ensures that all students receive quality education and skills to thrive during life in college and beyond, she said.
Goldenrod added that a large number of those unemployed individuals include black residents who emigrated from other countries. In many cases, when these individuals come to Minnesota they’re unable to put their skills and credentials to use.
To address the issue, Goldenrod called on the state government and employers to come together and find a common ground to help immigrants get back to the workforce. This is especially important, she added, as more and more people continue to age out of the labor market.
“Our state’s economic strength relies on all Minnesotans successfully participating in the workforce,” she said. “So making economic opportunities available to them and preparing them for good jobs should be a high priority.”
Beyond that, Lewis added, employers should acknowledge the fact that the state’s demographics continue to change as people of color have seen a dramatic increase in the last three decades.
That means, he said, hiring managers should start taking risks on people they hadn’t traditionally hired when the job market wasn’t as tight — by taking in workers, for instance, who may have only 70 or 50 percent of what it takes to perform a task and are willing to learn the rest on the job.
“The way employers hire and the pool they used to rely on is changing in front their very eyes,” Lewis said of employers. “So they have got to do things differently. If you find out what you do now is not working out, then you need to change it.”