Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

For Recent Black College Graduates, a Tougher Road to Employment

Months after receiving his diploma from Oakwood University, William Zonicle is still without a job in his field. Credit Bob Miller for The New York Times

From The New York Times

William Zonicle did what all the job experts advise. He majored in a growing field like health care. He studied hard and took time to develop relationships with his professors. Most important, he obtained a great internship in the human resources department at Florida Hospital in Tampa the summer before his senior year.

But more than seven months after receiving his diploma from Oakwood University, a historically black religious school in Huntsville, Ala., Mr. Zonicle is still without a job in his field. Instead, he is working part-time for $7.60 an hour at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in the center of town.

“It was tougher than I expected,” said Mr. Zonicle, 23, who applied for jobs at hospitals and nursing homes from Ohio to Florida after graduating in May. “Because of the work I had put in as an undergraduate, and making connections, I thought it would be easier to find a decent position.”

College graduates have survived both the recession and ho-hum recovery far better than those without a degree, but blacks who finished four years of college are suffering from unemployment rates that are painfully high compared with their white counterparts.

Garrick Ewers, who graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta this spring, is continuing his search for work in marketing. CreditBryan Meltz for The New York Times

Among recent graduates ages 22 to 27, the jobless rate for blacks last year was 12.4 percent versus 4.9 percent for whites, said John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

While there has always been a gap between black and white college grads, this 7.5 percentage point difference was far greater than before the recession burned through the economy. In 2007, for example, there was only a 1.4 percentage point difference, with 4.6 percent of recent black graduates out of work compared with 3.2 percent of similarly educated whites.

“This is very different from the past,” said Mr. Schmitt, a co-author of a study of employment among recent graduates published by the center. “You’d have to go back to the early 1980s recession to see that pattern.”

Historically, the periods during and immediately after downturns have been harder on blacks than on whites. But in this current cycle, the trend has been even more extreme.

Younger workers absorbed the brunt of job losses during the Great Recession, so black college graduates, also subject to persistent racial discrimination despite advances in civil rights, suffered from a double disadvantage, the report concluded.

Although the numbers of whites, blacks and Latinos graduating from college have surged in recent years, the number of black graduates is still relatively small. Of the 1.9 million college graduates ages 22 to 27 who were unemployed in 2013, 57,000 were black.

Politicians, economists and business leaders are united in the view that despite staggering tuition and fees at many institutions, college is worth the cost.

And it still is, despite the significant hit college graduates have taken in recent years. Particularly when considering the alternatives.

The unemployment rate for college graduates in November, for example, was down to 3.2 percent, compared with 5.6 percent for those with a high school diploma and 8.5 percent among those with less education. College graduates earned roughly twice as much last year as those without a degree.

“I would never say to anyone they shouldn’t get a college education,” said William A. Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University. “There’s no doubt that having a college education improves the relative situation of any black American compared with any other black American.”

“But it does not significantly reduce racial disparity,” he added. “We’ve got to do something else to really have an effect on that.”

In fact, the unemployment rate in 2013 was lower among whites who never finished high school (9.7 percent) than it was for blacks with some college education (10.5 percent).

Black graduates are suffering from a version of last hired, first fired, Mr. Darity said. The effects of discrimination are blunted when the work force is expanding, but in harder times minorities are much more vulnerable, he said.

A new report from the Century Foundation found that regardless of education, age or job, blacks continue to be almost twice as likely as whites to be unemployed.

For many recent black graduates, the benefits of a college education haven’t yet lived up to the promise. “I’m just surprised I haven’t gotten any job,” said Garrick Ewers, 22, a business administration major who donned a cap and gown this spring at Morehouse College, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta.

Mr. Ewers, who would like to work in marketing, applied to Google, Apple, BET, MTV and Amazon, among others.

When those didn’t come through, he looked at picking up some work nearby as a cashier or a waiter. “I’m applying for jobs I know I’m overqualified for,” he said, “and I haven’t even been getting those.”

He took a job a couple of weeks ago at a video store near his home for $8.50 an hour.

Many of his classmates are having similar problems, said Mr. Ewers, who moved back home after graduation. “My parents have been very helpful, but I know they’re getting sick of it,” he said.

The unemployment gap between black and white college graduates narrows as people grow older. Last year it was 3.5 percent for whites, versus 5.7 percent for blacks. But the delay in finding a job can reverberate years down the road, reducing wages over a lifetime.

Christopher Broughton, a business administration major in Mr. Ewers’s class at Morehouse, was an intern at Adobe Systems in San Francisco the previous summer, but the hoped-for job after graduation never came through.

Over the summer, Mr. Broughton, 22, said he sent at least 70 applications to large and small firms, using LinkedIn and online research. In October, he finally landed a job in Atlanta with Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate brokerage firm.

Mr. Zonicle, the Oakwood graduate, searched for jobs at hospitals, medical centers and nursing homes in the Huntsville area and throughout Florida.

Following up on leads he learned of through the business administration department at his college, he also sent his résumé to hospitals in Ohio and Atlanta, explaining that he would be happy to relocate.

Most of the applications were filed online, he said, and he never heard back, let alone got a chance to find out why he was not selected.

So with his part-time low-wage job at Barnes & Noble, Mr. Zonicle can now count himself among the 56 percent of recent black college graduates who are considered to be “underemployed” or working in jobs that don’t require a degree. That figure was up from about 45 percent before the recession, according to the report by the economic and policy research center.

Even degrees in science, technology, engineering and math — so-called STEM fields where the demand is high — have not immunized recent black graduates against job search difficulty. From 2010 to 2012, the average unemployment rate among young black engineers was 10 percent, the center reported, while the underemployment rate was 32 percent.

The evidence suggests that black graduates, with fewer resources to fall back on, are even more aggressive than whites in pursuing a job. But that hasn’t been enough to overcome obstacles.

“I had disappointing times before,” Mr. Zonicle said, “but when you’re expecting and hoping for something to come through and it doesn’t, it’s hard.”