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Rising tide of opportunity still leaves Black workers behind

by Suzanne  Kenney
Friday Mar 2, 2018

Rising tide of opportunity still leaves Black workers behind

Recent news about the U.S. labor market bodes well for anyone looking for a job. At 4.1 percent, the unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in 18 years and workforce shortages are affecting every region of the country.

Missouri needs healthcare and hospitality workers. Kentucky and Arkansas need construction workers. On the west coast, there is a need for farm and factory workers. Wisconsin, facing a shortage of workers due to its three percent unemployment and an array of demographic changes, is trying to lure millennials--whose careers were stymied by the Great Recession--to abandon Chicago and move north with an ad campaign that focuses on the state's affordability and quality of life.

The need for workers has meant that people who've previously struggled to gain a foothold in the working world, such as recent immigrants who are still learning English, people with disabilities, and people with criminal records who are looking to make a fresh start, are getting hired.

But a tight labor market alone is not enough to dismantle the systems in place that have long held Black workers behind. For example, the unemployment rate for Black people has steadily fallen in recent years from a high of 16.5 percent in 2010 to 7.7 percent in January, yet that number is still more than double the 3.5 percent unemployment rate for White people. On top of that, as a recent New York Times story examining the Black unemployment rate noted, the average annual pay for a Black person working full time was a little less than $40,000 in 2016, while a full time white worker earned $52,000 on average.

The Times story notes what those of us who run workforce, community development, and prison reentry programs have long observed: decades of structural inequalities-segregated neighborhoods, substandard schools, disproportionate incarceration rates, and discrimination in hiring and pay-have hindered the earning potential of Black Americans. Even the pursuit of higher education does not guarantee equal opportunity: according to the Times, Black workers with graduate degrees are paid approximately 22 percent less than their similarly educated White peers.

What's needed are increased efforts by employers, business and civic leaders, philanthropists, and government agencies to not just create jobs, but to build a system that can leverage the tight labor market to overcome the racism that's baked into every facet of civic life. In Nevada, for example, in preparation for the Oakland Raiders' move from California to Las Vegas in 2020, the state agreed to partially finance the building of the Raiders' new stadium provided the team ensured maximum participation from the surrounding communities in the facility's design, construction and operation-including using minority and female workers to carry out at least 38 percent of the construction work, which began late last year. Builders have already exceeded their hiring targets, with minority and female workers having performed 46 percent of construction work hours thus far.

What Nevada lawmakers did is a good example of what's known as the "workforce pipeline"--infrastructure built on public-private partnerships, college and vocational education, coaching and mentoring initiatives, and professional development programs within growth industries like hospitality, building construction and healthcare.

The first step to fulfilling one's earning potential is a fair opportunity to work. We should all feel good that labor conditions are creating new opportunities for everyone. But the racism that's held Black workers behind is a pernicious and stubborn weight on opportunities for advancement. It will take many attempts at systems-level change, with the arrangement in Nevada just one example, to ensure that opportunity truly is available to all.

Suzanne Kenney is the executive director of Project Place.