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Young black men dropping out of 'job culture'

Unemployment is down nationwide, except among black males.

KAI RYSSDAL: We mentioned the unemployment report earlier — 180,000 new jobs added to the economy last month. The unemployment rate fell. That's a measure of the number of people actually looking for work. It's down to a five-month low of 4.4 percent.

But go deeper into that data. to the lines breaking out black men, 20 and older, and the numbers look far less positive. Nine percent unemployment — that's up half a percent from a year ago. Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports some consider that figure an underestimate.


JEFF TYLER: The un-employment numbers don't count people who have stopped looking for work — or can't, because they're in jail.

For his research at the University of California, San Diego, Gordon Hanson prefers to measure the number of weeks a person works in a year. By that calculation, the figures for some African-Americans are disheartening.

GORDON HANSON: Low-skilled black males — that is, individuals with less than a high school education — spend only around 50 percent of their time working.

By other estimates, 72 percent of young black men who have dropped out of school are jobless.

What's going on here? In part, Hanson says, immigration has created more competition for jobs and depressed wages. But technology has had an even bigger impact.

AUTOMATED GATE: This is an automated facility with no cashiers at the exits.

Many of the remaining factory jobs have migrated overseas.

Of course, racial discrimination in the workplace remains an issue. Taken together, all this has left many young, black men alienated from the culture of work.

Columbia University professor Ron Mincy.

RON MINCY: Our failure to integrate these young men throughout school, and into the workplace, has inter-generational consequences. The challenges we are experiencing now are going to be recycling over generations to come.

Some in the black community say it's a catastrophe. And one that's being ignored.

Rob Carmona is president and CEO of Strive, a program based Harlem that teaches job skills.

ROB CARMONA: The culture of work is a learned trait.

In the classroom, Carmona doesn't pull punches.

CARMONA (in class): All you guys that were in jail, do you guys have brothers or sisters who didn't go to jail?

STUDENT: Yeah.

CARMONA: What do they do?

STUDENT: One drives a bus, one does security.

CARMONA: Driving a bus for the city? Civil servant. Makes a good buck. Probably got a nice crib. Got money in his clothes, right?

By contrast, Carmona's clients are often removed from the working world and its office etiquette.

CARMONA: They come from communities where their whole world is a five or six-block radius. And they have no inkling as to what's appropriate below 96th Street.

Midtown Manhattan is just a few subway stops from Harlem.

SUBWAY ANNOUNCEMENT: 42nd Street. Grand Central Station is next. Stand clear of the doors please.

Here at Grand Central Station, Columbia University professor Mincy recently stumbled upon a job interview in progress. He sensed — correctly — that the three young, black men would not get hired.

MINCY: They were not dressed appropriately for an employment interview. They wore hats the whole time, half of them on backwards. Didn't comport themselves in a way that I would have hired them myself.

On the inner-city streets, young guys learn to put on a "game face,"— an expression that communicates, "Don't mess with me." Mincy says they don't realize that it works against them in a work environment.

MINCY: They haven't a clue as to what these appropriate skills are. But there's no place in their set of movements where they're likely to acquire those skills.

Uptown at a street market in Harlem, I asked young, black men who hadn't finished high school about their employment prospects.

NELSON: For a person to get a job that doesn't have a high school diploma or GED, you're gonna get like a job paying about 6, $8 an hour. I put it in these terms, you know — low-class jobs.

ACE: I didn't really want no Burger King or McDonalds job. I wanted something better for myself.

At Strive, the job training program, Rob Carmona works to counter the stigma against entry-level positions.

CARMONA: Very little of the concept of crawling before you walk is imparted in the American psyche.

As for Columbia professor Ron Mincy, he advocates more job-shadowing programs. But despite the urgent need, he says there's a long-term decline in workforce development funding at the federal level. And many of those paying the price are young, unskilled black men.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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