Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=145845
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 Layton Ehmke/MEDILL

Travers Marshall, right, and Anthony Edwards, left, try out for a construction apprenticeship program, starting with a physical fitness test. Both know the economy has been hard on young African Americans.


Young, black and jobless: Recession deepens the woe

by Layton Ehmke
Nov 10, 2009


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 Layton Ehmke/MEDILL

Marshall hopes to be enrolled in a program that will put him face to face with employers and training so he can support his growing family.

Travers Marshall is young, black, unskilled and unemployed – and if the job trends continue, he knows he’ll need more than hope.

He knows he needs a trade. He knows he needs to survive.

That’s why he turned up Wednesday at the Chicago Urban League’s construction apprenticeship program interviews on the South Side. Marshall joins 19 other men who applied for the new 28-week program that will pair them with current employers and get young urban workers back in the workforce.

Those 20 hopefuls reflect the many whom the economy, industry and education have failed. Nationwide, unemployment for African Americans is 18 percent.

This week, Marshall takes a step toward improving his situation. 

For some, every effort, every minute counts. Marshall is taking written tests. He’s being drilled on physical fitness. Half of the group won’t make it to the next level of the program.

Marshall has been unemployed and looking for work for eight months. He used to work in a warehouse, but lost his job to the recession. With two toddlers and a girlfriend to support, he said he’ll do just about anything for a steady paycheck. Marshall lives in Robbins, one of Chicago’s oldest black suburbs, 17 miles south of the Loop.

“I’ve been looking for a steady job and thought I’d pick up a trade. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, get a trade under my belt so I can always find work,” Marshall said.

He had wanted to work with his dad in a steel mill, but that firm wasn’t stable enough to keep its new workers, Marshall said. “I tried getting in for the last couple of years but it wasn’t picking up. They’d hire 20 and lay 20 off. But, by me getting this trade, I figure when they do pick up, I’ll be able to get in.”

Marshall heard about the apprenticeship by word of mouth, like most in the program, including 23-year-old Anthony Edwards.

Edwards lives in Calumet City and works as a bank teller. But that’s not where he sees himself in the future: He wants to own his own construction business.

“I am looking toward the future,” Edwards said. “I want to be my own boss and help other people. I’ll give opportunity to anybody who needs opportunity.”

Edwards has unshaken optimism. He motions toward a nearby vacant lot filled with weeds and broken glass, a site not hard to find in parts of the Englewood neighborhood. He wants to build up such areas with homes and businesses and “whatever it takes to make Chicago a better place.”

David Thigpen, vice president of policy and research for the Chicago Urban League, said education has a lot to do with the many problems.

“The U.S. economy and the world economy are both changing rapidly, and both are putting high premium on higher skilled labor and higher education,” Thigpen said. “It used to be that a high school education was sufficient for a middle class standard of living. That’s why we’re focusing on workforce development.”

Illinoisans with less than a high school education are 12 times more likely to be unemployed than those with a B.S. degree or more, yet with every level of education, joblessness among African Americans was higher than both whites and Hispanics, according to the 2008 State of Working Illinois employment study.

Thigpen feels education can be key to black unemployment. But the Applied Research Center found in its study "Race and Recession," released last May, that communities of color face barriers to employment such as discrimination in hires and promotions – suggesting institutional racism. The center is a New York City-based racial justice think tank with the goal "to popularize the need for racial justice and prepare people to fight for it."

Seth Wessler, researcher and writer for the center, said black communities have been suffering an economic depression far longer than the country as a whole. Historically, black unemployment levels have been twice that of whites.

Wessler said there is a disconnect in the American memory of how African Americans have fared economically. It hasn’t even been close to parity – consistently and permanently, he said. The findings say Jesse Jackson was right in his column this week: African Americans are suffering a “silent depression.”

Wessler said people often imagine racism manifests from one person to another. But racism built into a larger system impacts everyone.

“We live in a world where opportunity is determined by who you are and by your race,” he said, and he warns that discrimination is built into the hiring processes. His answer to the problem? Like Jackson, Wessler says it’s time to find minorities a place in future industry before those jobs are exported to international markets.

Back in Englewood, where absent retail shops line the streets, Marshall, Edwards and the 18 other hopefuls find out this week whether they’ll be invited back for the apprenticeship.

In the meantime, many will do what Edwards says he does. “Stay positive. Be optimistic. Keep your head above water.”