Black people want to work, but opportunites lacking

gmathis@tri-statedefender.com | 6/6/2007, 7 p.m.

Judge Greg Mathis

Plenty of media and political attention has been placed on America’s current shortage of skilled workers. According to USA Today, utility companies are especially in need of staff. This includes welders, plant operators and engineers. If staffing needs aren’t met, met, sections of the country may be prone to blackouts and electricity shortages. Several lawmakers have suggested that an immigrant guest worker program could help with the worker shortages and help the country control illegal immigration. While illegal immigration is a pressing issue, it is not the only issue this country is grappling with. America is also dealing with – or should be dealing with – rising unemployment rates in the African-American community. Our people want work. Too bad the opportunities aren’t always open to us.
   
Eight percent of African-Americans are unemployed, twice the rate of whites. More African Americans are unemployed than any other ethnic group. Gone are the days when the majority of workers could find a bluecollar job – at an auto plant, for example. In Chicago, for example, the number of manufacturing jobs decreased by 49 percent between 1991 and 2006. The remaining jobs are more complex than those of years past, often requiring much technological skill and experience. Add to that drastic cuts in trade and job training programs, it has been difficult for blacks to get the training they need to access these types of jobs, despite the desire and the will to work.
   
So it comes as a slap in the face that many believe a guest worker program is the solution to the country’s current worker shortage. A proposed guest worker program would allow immigrants, including the 11 million or so illegal immigrants already in the U.S., could apply for three year work permits. Each would then be matched with an employer (illegal immigrants would have to pay a fine prior to joining). The thinking behind the program makes sense – the U.S. wants to give those who come to our country an opportunity to earn a living and provide for their families. But what about African-Americans, on whose backs the wealth of this nation was built?
   
Much of this skilled worker shortage of skilled workers can be blamed the government’s inability to provide an adequate public education system that equally prepares young people for the college and the workforce. We got ourselves into this mess. And we need to get ourselves out of it. The guest worker program is one way. But African-Americans should not be excluded from the solution.
   
If you, or someone you know, would be interested in a program that trains low-income individuals in the inner city, write your legislators. Share with them your personal struggles with unemployment and your job search. Encourage friends and families in similar situations to do the same. It’s these types of stories and outreach efforts that will bring about change.
 
(Judge Greg Mathis is national vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)