So, why can’t I get a job?

AntiPovertySoldierIn recent weeks, several media outlets and employment-focused nonprofit agencies have highlighted the sharp increase in the number of metro job openings since last year. In fact, as reported by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), there are now as many job openings in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area as there are “official” unemployed job seekers.

This is a circumstance that has not occurred in the metro area since the summer of 2001. Coupled with some of the lowest unemployment numbers in the nation (six of the seven metro counties are at or below four percent unemployment), this recent trend would suggest that economic conditions are looking very bright throughout the Twin Cities.

Notwithstanding these developments, I cannot help but sense the frustrations of so many local residents who must be asking the question, “So, why can’t I get a job?” In spite of the rosy picture that is painted by the surge in job openings and dwindling unemployment rates, there is so much more to consider.

Mitchell Hartman, a senior reporter for Marktetplace.org, suggests that the official unemployment rate is not an accurate representation of how many people are currently out of work. Local, state and national unemployment numbers do not include workers who have used up their unemployment benefits and still cannot find living-wage or middle-income jobs. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, there are currently more than seven million Americans that fall into this category.

I believe that this these facts speak directly to the current situation in the Twin Cities. The Star Tribune recently reported that the majority of these new openings are low-wage jobs, and approximately 40 percent are part-time positions. So while financial analysts have continued to talk about economic recovery not only in the Twin Cities but throughout the nation, there may be a sobering reality to these claims.

Kevin Ristau, education director of the Jobs Now Coalition, tells the Star Tribune that an ominous structural change is occurring in the job marketplace, adding that we might have “to accept that fact that growth is going to be in low-wage occupations.” Yet as recent data illustrates, many of these jobs remain unfilled as workers are seeking a higher wage.

It is also critical to keep in mind the required qualifications for any given job. I’ve heard numerous examples of job seekers who, when unable to find employment consistent with their skill set and career background, have sought lower-wage jobs. Yet they are often deemed overqualified, and employers may lack confidence that these workers will be committed for the long-term.

There are also skilled workers who have been downsized out of a career field that no longer meets the demands of an ever-evolving marketplace. Perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, the transferable skills, education and experience of many of these workers would have positioned them to transition into another career.

However, in today’s competitive marketplace most jobs require specific and detailed qualifications that leave many seasoned professionals on the outside looking in while desperately trying to figure out their next move. George Dow, who leads a Twin Cities consulting firm specializing in career planning and transition, notes that on average it takes a professional between one and three years to successfully change careers.

On the flip side of the qualifications divide are those willing and talented men and women who currently lack the qualifications and experience to compete for living-wage jobs. This is why employment and career development programs are so critical. Still, adequate funding does not exist for such programs.

Finally, against the local backdrop of comparatively low unemployment along with perceived job growth, I would be remiss not to mention the persistent disparity in unemployment between Black and White Minnesotans. Just as recently as 2011, Minnesota had the largest employment gap between Blacks and Whites in the entire nation.

Likewise, the Twin Cities shared the same distinction among America’s largest metropolitan areas. And although the unemployment rate among Black Minnesotans has fallen in the last few years, it is still more than three times that of Whites, and the state currently maintains the second-largest employment gap between Blacks and Whites in all 50 states.

So although there are as many job openings as “official job seekers” in the Twin Cities, there are a multitude of reasons why so many people still can’t get a job. Furthermore, most of the currently available jobs are just not offering wages sufficient to support a household in 2015.

I believe that wages must increase and America must invest more in education and employment. That said, even if these efforts significantly increase the number of college graduates and skilled workers, will there be enough jobs available to them in the future?

Will they also find themselves asking, “So, why can’t I get a job?”

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.