by Mrinal Gokhale
For many years, Milwaukee’s black male unemployment rate has been one of the highest in the country, along with incarceration and school achievement gaps. For the first time, the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board held a conference on Jul 29 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., discussing root causes, workplace barriers and solutions to Black male unemployment in Milwaukee.
Theresa Jones, V.P. of diversity and inclusions at Wheaton Franciscan, began with a PowerPoint presentation detailing factors making it hard for men of color to find work. On an individual level, she listed education, criminal background, accessibility, job training, lack of driver’s license and transportation. On a corporate and community level, she listed access, training and readiness, media biases and job requirements.
The audience expanded on Jones’ points, and some attendees described additional barriers. One woman with the Milwaukee Urban League brought up a lack of basic computer skills.
“I’ve met men who don’t know how to navigate the Internet to search for jobs,” she said.
Another attendee said incarceration lengths are typically longer for black men than white men. This led to another attendee sharing that he currently works in IT, but came from the streets.
“If I lost my job, it may be hard not to go back to the life I once knew to support my children,” he said.
After the audience discussion, four successful African-American panelists discussed their careers and how to overcome barriers.
“Have a plan B for childcare, unreliable cars or missed busses. Hiring black men isn’t the biggest challenge; it’s maintaining the retention because men of color don’t always prepare,” said Dimitri Mack of the YWCA, a non-profit that aims to empower African-American women.
Another panelist, Eric Ford of Wheaton Franciscan agreed with Mack’s statement and added that people skills are also important to maintaining retention.
“As an educated African-American male, if you don’t assimilate and mesh with the level of social intelligence in your environment, you may feel uncomfortable around your co-workers and eventually quit,” he said.
Ford said social intelligence is helpful in case employees make mistakes, and that many organizations lack mentorship from men of color. Later in the discussion, he stressed the value of working for free and moving up the ladder.
“Fifteen years ago, I wanted to be a healthcare executive. I was the epitome of hustle, going to school nights and weekends,” he said. “One day, I walked into a hospital and said I’ll work for free, so I took a six week unpaid internship.”
Ford’s hard work paid off, although his wife was at first doubtful about his decision to take the unpaid opportunity.
“I suffered from the optimism bias, but once the internship ended, the CEO met with me saying, ‘I’ll personally hand over your resume to human resources.’”
Once the panel discussion ended, Jones shared the top seven industries in Milwaukee for the 2015 year: manufacturing, food services, education, administrative waste management, construction and healthcare.
She said Manpower’s outlook for June 2015 shows professional and managerial services make up 27% of the workforce. Although the unemployment rate among men of color has improved in a few years, she feels there’s a long way to go.
“The statistic for men of color in leadership roles is only five percent; our umbrellas aren’t where they should be and I look for men of color to be on the Board of Directors.”
The Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board is located at 2338 N. 27th St. Visit milwaukeewib.org for more information.