It's no surprise to anyone that the two-year-old recession has wreaked havoc on the black community. African Americans already had a higher jobless rate than Americans overall, and the downturn only deepened long-term trends in unemployment, with Black men hit especially hard.
Manufacturing, which has played a key role in building the black middle class since World War II, took an especially severe blow. The sector had already been losing jobs for years as automation allowed more productivity with fewer workers. The jobs remaining were among the first to go in this recession — just over 2 million factory jobs since the recession began in December 2007. Over a two-year period starting in November 2007, sixteen percent of the manufacturing jobs lost belonged to blacks, according to the Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute. By comparison, blacks make up 11 percent of the American labor force.
Some manufacturers are turning to the burgeoning economy around clean and renewable energy in order to stay in business. The so-called "green" push, partly funded through the federal stimulus monies, could create thousands of manufacturing jobs, according to California-based advocacy group Apollo Alliance. It could also help propel a slow turnaround that can provide opportunities in distressed communities.
"There's a new economy that's going to be built. It's already its happening in India, China, and the only question is do we make sure it happens in Detroit, Cleveland, and Richmond also," says Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, chief executive officer of Green For All in Oakland, CA. "We believe it's critical that we do and we think it's a question of how we can participate and be successful."
To succeed we must ensure that minorities have access to the brave new world the green economy is creating in manufacturing, said Ellis-Lamkins. As an example of the opportunities being created, California-based Twin Creeks is building its new solar panel factory in the northern Mississippi of Senatobia, creating 512 jobs in two phases over the next five years, she says.
To secure one of these jobs, workers will have to step up their training and education to meet the industry's changing needs. Community and national organizations are teaming up to create programs that will offer courses to help workers to raise their game. Last year, the Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Institute received a $1.5-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop education programs in community colleges that will enable students and lower-skilled workers to be certified for skills that meet manufacturers' changing demands, such as learning how to use specialized computer-controlled machines.
But more needs to be done to make sure the green revolution translates into jobs for those who need it most, according to advocacy groups. Apollo Alliance has urged the U.S. Congress to enact a climate and energy legislation that can help, sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D, Ohio). Some provisions of Sen. Sherrod's bill were passed as part of the American Clean Energy Act in June of last year.
Sen. Sherrod's bill provides a 2-year, $30- billion manufacturing revolving loan fund for states. The fund would help assist small and medium-sized companies in retooling, expanding or establishing domestic clean energy factories. The funding not only gives factories the capital needed to expand their green initiatives but also helps them to build and retain highly-skilled factory workers - right here in the U.S., says Sam Haswell, a spokesman for the Apollo.
If passed, the industry could generate 680,000 new factory jobs as well as 1.9 million related positions.
Meanwhile, manufacturing appears to be turning the corner. Activity at factories grew in March at the fastest pace in almost six years. The Institute for Supply Management reported its manufacturing index rose to 59.6 last month from 56.5 in February. The rise was driven by gains in new orders and production, as well as larger inventories, which increased for the first time in 46 months.
Hopefully, these gains will eventually translate into the black community. It would hopefully not only turn around the overall 16.5% unemployment rate, but also reestablish our role in building up the industry.
"These are the jobs that have and offer the most opportunity for our communities," says Ellis-Lamkins.
M.F. White is a Chicago-based writer who covers a wide array of topics, including business and economic news.