As the Great Recession's scythe slices through industries, states, cities and neighborhoods, African Americans have received the most devastating wound.
Blacks, and particularly African-American males, have suffered disproportionate rates of unemployment and underemployment historically, for reasons that include weaker educational attainment, lack of connections, less mobility, a high percentage of workers in blue-collar jobs and discrimination. Thus many have marginal links to the labor force, and after negative experiences when trying to finding work, others have stopped looking.
That African Americans have it worse is not new news, but a recent Congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) report provides much-needed illumination on just how badly blacks have fared in the economic downturn. It details the previously unaddressed impact of long-term unemployment among black men and its corrosive effect on the black community.
The situation for African Americans is dire. In the first two months of 2010, the black male jobless rate was 19 percent, and just over 13 percent for black women. Before this recession, the overall black unemployment rate was 9 percent.
The future looks bleak. Roughly 6.1 million workers of all backgrounds have sought work for at least 27 weeks, the sign of long-term unemployment. But while blacks comprise just 11.5 percent of the labor force, they account for more than 20 percent of the long-term unemployed, and 22 percent of workers unemployed for more than a year.
Teens Need Jobs, Too
The job outlook for black youth between 16 and 24 is also clouded. The youngest and least educated teens fare badly when they compete with Generation Xers, Millennials, Baby Boomers, and retirees, of every background. The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University (CLMS) reports that in late 2009, only 14 percent of black male teens, and 15.5 percent of black female teens had jobs. By contrast, 28 percent and about 31 percent of white male and female teens, respectively, were employed.
Margaret C. Simms, a fellow at the Urban Institute says that discrepancy bears examination. And some economists wonder if the black teens' inability to find meaningful work now will scar their lifetime employment history.
The Urban Institute's Simms says the plight of single black mothers who have been laid off has also been overlooked. When the women lose their jobs, the difficulty of finding adequate child care inhibits their search and prospects.
Where Are the Blue-Collar Jobs?
Before the recession, 40 percent of black men held blue-collar jobs, which include manufacturing, transportation, construction and moving materials. Since then, one-fifth of those black workers were laid off. The crucial issue, says Sum, is that as the economy reconfigures itself, 6 in 10 unemployed black men report that their former permanent, or less-than-full-time jobs are gone forever. The average layoff period for these men was also 33 weeks, making it harder to reenter the labor market.
The auto industry possesses many well-paying jobs for skilled and unskilled blue-collar workers beyond those on the Big Three's auto assembly lines. But the recession has taken its toll. Take the case of the National Association of Black Automotive Suppliers (NABAS), which represents businesses that provide goods and services, mostly as subcontractors, to the auto makers.
The strength of NABAS is apparent. Four of its members were in the top 10 of the 2009 Black Enterprise 100 Industrial/Service list of companies, and nine were part of the overall ranking. Despite that, NABAS's ranks have been decimated over the past decade.
In 2000, NABAS comprised 48 companies, with 17,000 employees, and total annual sales of $3.2 billion. This year, the group has 23 companies, annual sales of $2.5 billion and 7,000 employees.
The company's response to harsh times is diversification. In an e-mail to The Root, Roderick Rickman, NABAS advocacy chairman, said that the recession, the plunge in auto sales and inadequate access to credit threaten the auto suppliers' existence. Member companies must therefore retool their workforce and technology to win contracts in aerospace/defense, health care, alternative energy, education and utilities.
If that strategy works out, NABAS members will need more employees.
Frank McCoy is a regular contributor to The Root. He covers business and technology.