DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporter

After long having the highest unemployment rate of any ethnic group, L.A.'s African Americans are finally finding it easier to get jobs.

Driven by five years of economic growth and a resulting demand by companies for a greater number of workers, the black unemployment rate in the state fell to 9 percent in April, its lowest level this decade. Just five years ago, the figure stood at 16.6 percent.

Neither the U.S. Department of Labor nor the state of California breaks down Los Angeles County unemployment figures by race or ethnicity. But numerous economists say that the county, with about 30 percent of the state's workforce, is largely reflective of the state as a whole.

"It always seems like the African-American community is coming out on the shorter end of things," said Rosietta Gibson, president and chief executive of ASC Temporaries Inc., a Carson-based employment agency with a 40 percent black workforce. "But overall, I think things are improving."

Indeed, local business people, academics and others who track the local job market say they have seen a noticeable change in the ease with which African Americans are finding work.

Val Bush, principal of the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center, a job-training center in Watts, said there is a growing willingness on the part of employers to take a chance on black workers even those who may have been out of the workforce for a while, or are coming off welfare rolls.

"Many companies are now more willing to reach out for various personnel," Bush said. "They are, for instance, willing to come out to schools or community-based organizations and talk to the person right there. I think companies are more willing to take a chance."

Crystal Hawkins found that to be true when she started looking for work late last year after a nine-year absence from the job market. While the 38-year-old Long Beach resident took steps to make herself more marketable, including taking eight weeks of classes at a local job-training center, she didn't expect her job search to be easy.

But when Hawkins, who is African American, went for a job interview at a Signal Hill telecommunications company earlier this year, her long absence from the workforce during which she was caring for her four children, as well as going through a drug rehabilitation program was hardly mentioned.

"They just told me they were willing to train me," said Hawkins, who has now been working for two months. "They were going to show me what to do."

Gibson of ASC Temporaries said she also has seen a growing willingness among employers to train workers even if they have been out of the workforce for a while. "In general, people seem to be more benevolent toward those who have less," she said.

Benevolence, however, may play only a small role. Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a UCLA public policy professor who studies the labor market, said that in times of strong economic growth, when the pool of potential employees is shrinking, employers are more willing to hire those they typically would not consider.

When the national unemployment rate was at about 3.5 percent in the 1960s, for example, former President Lyndon Johnson's chief economic adviser encouraged companies to hire workers from welfare rolls advice many companies followed.

"You were really scouring every part of the labor market to meet your vacancies," Mitchell said, adding that the practice was repeated by some companies during the economic boom of the 1980s and is happening again now.

Michael Stoll, an assistant public policy professor at UCLA, said that while economic growth is several years old in California, African Americans are just now beginning to benefit from it.

"What you normally find with the business cycle is that African Americans benefit last from the employment boom, and are usually hurt the most during the economic busts," he said. "They're usually the last set of workers to be hired particularly low-skilled African Americans."

Indeed, while black unemployment in California was 9 percent in April (the most recent monthly statistics available), the total unemployment rate was much lower, at 5.8 percent. White unemployment was 5.7 percent in April and Latino unemployment was 8.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

(Nationally, black unemployment fell to 7.5 percent in May its lowest level in nearly three decades, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.)

The reason for the disparity in California is that while recent immigrants primarily Latinos in Southern California tend to have fewer skills than African Americans, employers prefer to hire them because many are willing to work in substandard conditions after arriving in this country, Stoll said.

Furthermore, Latinos are spread throughout L.A., including large communities in the San Fernando Valley, where much of the job growth has been concentrated. By comparison, the city's African-American population is more heavily concentrated in L.A.'s core.

That reality which Stoll calls "the spatial dimension of employment" makes it harder for blacks to find out about work in the suburbs by word of mouth and then to travel to their jobs. One recent study showed that for a worker to get from South Central L.A. to a job in Woodland Hills using Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses would take two hours and 40 minutes and two bus transfers.

"When you're talking about single mothers with kids that have to negotiate child care and may have to drop their kids off at child care, it's almost prohibitive," Stoll said.

Ebony Wright, who last October went to work as an aide to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters after years in temporary positions, said it remains difficult for many African-American women to hold onto their jobs.

"A lot of these women are doing the best they can," said Wright, herself a single mother of two. She notes that many women are raising children on their own with little or no support from the children's fathers.

"It goes back to the family values," she said. "Since the family values are torn down, the responsibility is on the women. It's hard, it's hard."

Still, the improving employment picture for black Angelenos is likely to continue for a while. Given the willingness among employers to train unskilled workers in areas ranging from data entry to manufacturing, many African Americans appear to be picking up skills that can be used in future jobs, as well.

Further, if employers have positive experiences with black workers whom they might not have hired in the past because of lingering racism or a lack of outreach they might be more open-minded in the future, even after the economic growth slows or reverses.

"That will mitigate the impact of the business cycle on their employment," Stoll said.

Said Mitchell: "If we succeed in keeping the economy going at the current level, we might be able to break the historical pattern. It's still going to be the case that if we have a recession, unemployment rates will go up, but maybe it will be more evenly distributed (among racial and ethnic groups)."

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