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Restructuring after the Great Recession
Long-term unemployed remake skills, launch careers
Published Thursday, February 2, 2012 7:24 am
by Sommer Brokaw

Black workers are facing higher rates of unemployment, a significant loss of wealth over the recession, and a less secure middle class, but hope is not lost.

O’mar Mitchell of Charlotte hugs Jacob’s Ladder Job Center volunteer coordinator Denise Moses during graduation ceremony on Jan. 27. Program coordinator Derrick Miller is on the left.

“My grandmother once told me it’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up,” Johnny Day, executive director of Jacob’s Ladder Job Center,    told the first graduating class of 2012.

Graduate Robin Bridges, who has been unemployed since October, said he lost his job due to downsizing and a new management team. He never expected that he’d be out of work for so long. Prior to becoming unemployed, he worked for 20 years in food service, and the last six years as a cook supervisor at Sharon Towers. Though he wasn’t that enthusiastic before coming to Jacob’s Ladder,  now he is ready to pound the pavement. “Being unemployed it messes with you mentally, physically, emotionally, but I thank Jacob’s Ladder for giving me that burst of energy,” he said. 

He is one of many people across the state dealing with unemployment in a job market that has yet to recover from the recession. A December report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that 446,402 people were unemployed statewide. The number of jobs that will be needed to reach pre-recession levels  – or the job shortfall - is 515,000 jobs, according to the North Carolina Justice Center’s recent state profile of unemployment.

The state unemployment profile refers to the period between 2007 and 2010 as the Great Recession. During this time, the number of employed blacks in North Carolina declined by 7.4 percent compared to a 5.3 percent decline in the number of employed whites.

In 2010, the unemployment rate for blacks was 17.2 percent in North Carolina, nearly twice the 8.6 rate for white North Carolinians, and higher than the national average for African Americans of 15.9 percent, a 2011 Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief shows.

“I think if the U.S. has a bad cold we got pneumonia,” said James Johnson, PhD, professor, Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill.
A Pew Research Center analysis found that inflation-adjusted median wealth from 2005-2009 fell by 53 percent among black households and 66 percent among Hispanic households compared with just 16 percent among white households.

“I think we have a hollowing out of our economy and I think the middle class squeeze is on, and I think your value add in the years ahead is going to be heavily relying on high levels of computer literacy, high levels of analytical thinking, and entrepreneurial skills,” Johnson said.

He added that this recession is different because the way business is done is changing into more a “freelance economy” with “global sourcing for talent” on the Internet. “We always in the African-American community have been resilient, we find a way, but this downturn that we find ourselves in and this kind of disruptive change we find ourselves in is pretty dramatic because it defies everything we’ve been told about success,” he said.

Cay’me Jones, development coordinator, Jacob’s Ladder, has heard their demographic is shifting. “We had some homeless individuals that came and were a part of our core class,” she said. “We don’t have that so much. The individuals now that we are serving are individuals with some of them have master’s degrees whereas before maybe they hadn’t even graduated high school or maybe they had some college, but now we’re seeing that some of them have graduate degrees, they have experience in the workforce.”

Johnson said data show long-term joblessness of six months or more has increased more rapidly with people with some college or bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees than among those with a high school diploma or less, especially  in the public sector. National research shows that one in five public sector workers are African American and median wages for blacks in the public sector are significantly higher than in other industries.

“Since 2009, there have been a lot of cuts in the public sector where we  tend to be disproportionately concentrated because that’s how the black middle class grew for the most part,” Johnson said. “After the civil rights movement, you saw the emergence of a burgeoning black middle class largely because the public sector introduced civil rights legislation and hired a lots of folks.”

Jacob’s Ladder program coordinator Derrick Miller said many of the students in the 20-day job readiness program lost jobs in 2008.
“They came in already thinking it’s not going to happen for them because they’ve already been out there looking,” he said.

Miller added that it’s particularly hard for black men with a criminal record to find work. Alexander Elliott, a Raleigh resident who has a wife and twins, is not in Jacob’s Ladder, but he said that this is a problem in his area.

“The convicted felon rate is so high they’re already maxed out to capacity with the manpower that they can use,” he said. “I just stand firm in a my faith and believe that God will make a way and so far he has.”

Ex-offenders in the program are encouraged to explain what the problems are and to focus on how they actually are making changes.

Denise Moses, Jacob’s Ladder’s volunteer coordinator in Charlotte, teaches an ethics class and also shares her own story of how she got through a personal struggle of being a widow at 28 and single mother to inspire students.

“A gift isn’t a gift until you give it away, and I feel like it’s my duty as a Christlike women to give it away,” she said.

O’mar Mitchell, a client who found two part-time jobs through being at Jacob’s Ladder, said Miller and Moses encouraged him.

“Mr. Miller he pushes you …he has a drive about himself. He pushes you to that next level so even if you don’t want to do it after being in his class you’re going to want to do it,” Mitchell said. “And after hearing Denise’s story and her drive and her oomph. I was like ‘OK. Wow!’ So the both of them just push you and it just makes you want to be more than what you are at the moment.”


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