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‘It’s not a secret’: Minority unemployment in Duluth remains high even as jobs go unfilled

There aren’t “whites only” signs in the windows, but some job seekers in Duluth say it sure seems that way.

“Because I am of black, African-American descent, it is not as easy to get into the medical industry even with all the experience I have,” said Erikka Thornton, who has been licensed in her field for nearly 20 years. “I live in a town where there are racists. It needs to be discussed. It’s not a secret.”

Compared to white residents, black people and Native Americans in Duluth are more than three times as likely to be unemployed but actively looking for a job, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data. That disparity has long loomed over the city, and it isn’t improving quickly.

“I see that every day, and I hear stuff in the community about racism and discrimination in the workplace,” said Renee Van NettRenee Van Nett, employment liaison for Community Action Duluth. “It’s systemic, and people won’t say they got discriminated against because it’s so normal. It’s so normal to deal with all the time for us.”

The disparity is worse in Duluth than Minnesota as a whole, which can be pinned in part on the city’s low numbers of minorities. However, that is the population growing the fastest and will need to make up a greater share of employees if businesses plan to grow.

Meanwhile, individuals and businesses are working to overcome obstacles such as job requirements and transportation — small steps in the face of a bigger problem.

“We need to make sure we’re breaking down barriers that have better outcomes for everybody and not just one particular person,” Van Nett said.

Thornton said in her five years in Duluth she’s had the best and worst of it, from making a good living currently at Bayshore Residence & Rehabilitation Center to making “pennies on the dollar” at previous jobs.

“I think it has a lot to do based on color,” the 47-year-old said. “People need to stop brushing it under the rug and start acting on how they’re being treated. I know it’s not easy, but it’s the only way to do anything.”

Behind the numbers

The census numbers released this month tell the story: White Duluthians are averaging a 6 percent unemployment rate, while African-Americans hold a 28 percent rate, Native Americans face 20 percent unemployment, and Duluthians of two or more races have a 19 percent jobless rate.

At the same time, the percentage of minorities in the labor force — those working or looking for work — is smaller than the white labor participation rate, but only by a few percentage points.

Yet these numbers aren’t new; such disparities have been the case for a long time.

“Sometimes you spend a lot of time discussing the disparities, and they’re there,” said Erik White, regional labor analyst for the Department of Employment and Economic Development. “So the question becomes what to do about it.”

Finding a solution means identifying the cause, which in this case often has roots in perceptions and their resulting actions.

“Our brains look for people who are different than us and judge them thumbs up or thumbs down,” said Jason Beckman, program director at Soar Career Services, a local nonprofit. “Now look at hiring managers in our city — how many of them are people of color? If people of color can’t get hired and promoted up into management positions, it’s keeping them from getting hired.”

Because nonwhite Duluthians account for about 10 percent of the population, Beckman said a feedback loop of whites hiring whites is perpetuated, consciously or not.

“We’re stuck in this system because we identify with people who are like us, and others are less likely to be chosen,” he said.

Demographics are changing, however. White pointed out that the number of people who are black or of two or more races is growing in Duluth, while the white population is shrinking slowly and aging.

“There’s an increase in diversity, especially in the younger adult population,” he said.

Increased diversity coupled with a high number of unfilled jobs — White said many employers are crying out for more workers as overall unemployment continues to dive — means there is reason to be optimistic about what the numbers may say in the future.

“The expectation is for these disparities to decrease as long as the labor market continues to be tight,” White said.

But many aren’t waiting around for the market to correct itself.

Bridging the gap

Some advocates say a dose of harsh reality is needed — there’s tackling systemic racism, and then there’s the need to get a job today.

“We’re upfront with these numbers with our clients, and I will tell African-American men it’s going to be harder for you to find a job than a white man with a criminal record,” Beckman said. “I tell my clients it’s not your job to defend an entire group of people — your job is to show that you’re the exception.”

Beckman said it gets back to the psychological barriers, and that adaptation is key. Agencies like Soar can help applicants develop “soft skills,” which include workplace etiquette, what to wear and norms such as calling in if late. Those from disadvantaged families may not have had the chance to pick up those skills at home or in school.

A further step individuals can take is pointing out similarities between themselves and the person holding the keys to employment.

“How can the applicant become more like the person making the hiring?” Beckman posits. “If you can do some stuff beforehand to research the company and leadership you can focus more on commonalities than differences.”

It can’t be on the shoulders of applicants alone to bridge Duluth’s racial employment disparities, however.

“It’s going to take the whole community, from individuals all the way to the employer, to really make a dent in the disparities,” said Paula ReedPaula Reed, the city’s workforce development manager. “How do we in the community work together to provide training and the things an individual needs to be prepared to go into a certain job and match that with what an employer’s needs are?”

While the business community was largely reticent on this issue when pressed for comment, some area employers spoke up to say they value an inclusive workplace and have diversity on their minds.

“We take proactive measures to share job opportunities with local organizations that serve diverse populations within our communities,” said Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy RutledgeAmy Rutledge. “To support applicants who may not be familiar with our electronic application processes or who have limited access, we work with local colleges and community groups to provide education about the process.”

Local restaurant group Just Take Action, which owns Fitger’s Brewhouse, The Blind Pig, Endion Station and others, doesn’t have a specific plan for recruiting for diversity but has managed to build a staff that reflects the community it serves.

“Diversity of all kinds is at the foundation of JTA’s philosophy and brand,” said marketing director Marissa Saurer.

Leading the charge in trying something different, one big employer — the city of Duluth — recently announced it was looking at job qualifications and, for some entry-level jobs, taking off potentially unnecessary requirements such as having a driver’s license — something the private sector could follow.

“You don’t want to have unintentional barriers when you’re posting a new job that would prohibit someone from applying,” Reed said. “When you have the support of leadership in your community, it’s easier for people to take action because it has that high level of priority.”

Further support is coming from the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, which is working with employers and other partners to bring unemployment down.

“A high rate of unemployment, experienced by any particular segment of our community, is a concern,” said chamber president David RossDavid Ross. “I am hopeful that it is a potential employee’s skillset and personal attributes that determines if that person is hired.”

Yet area students of color are falling behind white peers when it comes to academic achievement and access many opportunities, disadvantaging those students when they start looking for jobs. Pressing employers to train willing but perhaps under-qualified applicants on the job and getting schools, parents and other institutions to reinforce workplace skills can all go a long way toward driving minority unemployment down, advocates say. Counselors in high schools — sorely lacking in many Minnesota school districts — can also be a bridge between students and jobs.

But the doors can’t be open only to entry-level work if lasting change is to be achieved.

“We do not have enough people of color as professionals working in our city, and that’s kind of discouraging,” said Stephan WitherspoonStephan Witherspoon, president of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP. “Especially for young kids and adults — they want to see people looking like them. And that’s a big deal.”

Multiple issues

Progress has been slow but measurable — unemployment rates for Duluth’s minority residents were markedly higher in 2010.

Still, employment is one of many concerns that tend to compound for the city’s disenfranchised — and racism can creep up in each one. Housing, education, health care and poverty are all pressing issues, and poverty itself affects Duluth’s minorities at much higher rates than whites.

“We can’t work on other solutions unless we acknowledge and do something about racism within each solution,” said Matt TraynorMatt Traynor, community organizer at CHUM.

If getting a job wasn’t hard enough, people of color also have disproportionately higher rates of incarceration.

Manuel, a Cuban refugee who has lived in Duluth since 1980, carries a felony conviction like an albatross around his neck. He’s working with Soar to overcome that added barrier.

“I’d like to get a job doing what I used to do, as a mechanic,” said the 52-year-old whose last name was withheld as he looks for work, as he does not have to put his criminal record on applications due to Minnesota’s “ban the box” law. “You think for people who have done their time — you’re paying it for life.”

And at the intersection of race and gender, the job situation gets more dire, especially when it comes to earnings. Women overall make 81 cents for every dollar a white man makes, while Native American women make 58 cents, according to census data.

Altogether, employment problems facing Duluth’s minorities don’t have simple solutions, because these aren’t simple problems.

Van Nett, with Community Action Duluth and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said the best hope for change is getting more voices heard, helping people keep an open mind and lending a hand wherever it’s needed.

“I used to be that person. I came from a bad background, a bad life before — I know exactly where people are and what they deal with,” she said. “The way I’ve gotten out of it is through support and those helping me find my way through to survival.”

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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