September’s 3.7 percent unemployment rate, a nearly 50-year low, is helping all U.S. workers, but it’s especially beneficial to disadvantaged groups that have struggled to land jobs — like black teenagers.
The jobless rate for African-Americans age 16 to 19 fell from 20.1 percent to 19.3 percent last month, the lowest on records dating to 1972. Although monthly data can be volatile and the sharp decline could be partly reversed in coming months, black teenage unemployment has been trending down since peaking at 48.9 percent in 2010.
“As the labor market tightens, employers have to look to workers they ordinarily don’t (consider), like black teens,” says Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Overall black unemployment fell from 6.3 percent to 6 percent in September, a tad above the record low 5.9 percent reached in May.
There are several reasons that black teen joblessness remains well above the broader 12.8 percent teenage unemployment rate. Blacks still face discrimination and often lack a network of contacts who can provide job referrals, says Heidi Schierholz, economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. They also may live in lower-income neighborhoods that don’t have good access to transportation to job sites, she says.
Some have been “raised in environments of trauma, which has significant effects,” says Willa Seldon, a partner in the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit that fights poverty.
And while a disproportionate share of black teenagers may lack college or even high school degrees, “Studies show that these teens have the skills but not the credentials,” says Seldon. “More employers have begun hiring these youth and have found them to be great employees with higher retention.”
The teenagers often work in part-time retail, restaurant or warehouse jobs while still in high school or similar full-time positions after graduating.
Such entry-level jobs can be critical to their future careers, says Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
“Early work experience matters, especially for people who aren’t going to get” a college degree, he says. It can provide a springboard to higher-level jobs and teach good work habits, such as showing up on time, he says.
Such jobs also provide much-needed income to help their families make ends meet, Shierholz says.
Yet Holzer notes the 19.3 percent unemployment rate is still disturbingly high and leaves out the many black teenagers who aren’t even looking for work and so aren’t counted among the unemployed. Also, when the next economic downturn hits, unemployment among black teenagers will “get worse again.”
“We shouldn’t be doing handstands,” he says.
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