July 30, 2019

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The adage that a rising tide lifts all boats does not hold water when it comes to the employment experiences of the black, Latinx, and immigrant populations in the United States and Chicago. When the economy improves, logic tells us that demand for workers increases and unemployment decreases, but black and Latinx job seekers have not experienced the same rates of improvement as white job seekers. Disparities in employment are a deeply rooted historical constant, fueled by racial segregation, lack of access to high-quality educational opportunities, implicit and explicit discriminatory hiring practices, and a discriminatory justice system. The Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy found that from 1960 to 2015, the black unemployment rate was consistently over four times greater than Chicago’s white unemployment rate, and the rate for the Latinx population was about double that of the white unemployment rate. For low-income people of color, these employment disparities are magnified.

The current unemployment rate exemplifies this pattern of entrenched employment disparity. Unemployment has reached a nearly 50-year low. As of May 2019, the national unemployment rate was at 3.6 percent, the lowest since 1969. However, employment across race is not equal. The latest state unemployment numbers from the Illinois Department of Employment Security show white unemployment was at 3.5% compared to 8.7% for black and 4.2% for Latinx residents.

The Fry Foundation prioritizes investments in vocational training programs that are highly effective at helping low-income job seekers secure higher paying jobs that create an on-ramp to careers. These jobs are often referred to as middle-skills jobs, and there is high demand for them in growing industries in the Chicago region – manufacturing, health care, and transportation and logistics. Middle-skill jobs make up about 44 percent of jobs in the Chicago region and currently make up the largest part of the labor market in every state. These jobs require some education beyond a high school diploma but less than a four year degree. 

Middle skilled jobs pay a living wage and present an opportunity for low-income job seekers to gain the skills needed to advance into positions that offer higher growth and wage potential. Grantees’ strong relationships with employers ensure state-of-the-art industry training and serve to mitigate employer-hiring bias. For example, many vocational training grantees have shown employers that workers with criminal records can be successful in their workplaces.

We are proud to invest in organizations that work to ensure all job seekers have equitable access to jobs that offer the potential for family sustaining wages and the ability to move out of poverty. Two examples of these grantees are Instituto Progressando del Latino and Jane Addams Resource Center.

Instituto Progressando del Latino's Carreras en Salud (Careers in Health) has led the way in these efforts for the past decade, providing the education and support systems needed for community members to launch successful careers in the healthcare industry. To date, Carreras en Salud has propelled 400 licensed practical nurses and 200 registered nurses, with job placement of 100 percent.

The program is customized to the needs of each person who enrolls. Someone may begin with literacy instruction in their native language, vocational ESL instruction, or college pre-requisites, and then transition into tailored job training and community college courses. The goal is for all students to receive industry-recognized credentials along the way, allowing them to move up the career ladder and increase their pay rapidly. Throughout, students are provided with supports to help them be successful in the program, such as tutoring, childcare, and financial planning.

Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) is a vocational training center in the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor that looks much like a manufacturer’s shop floor. Like the Fry Foundation, JARC endeavors to assist low-income workers, including those who have served time in prison, in achieving well-paying careers. JARC’s well-regarded Careers in Manufacturing job training programs prepare these job seekers to become employed as machine operators, machine programmers, and welders. To be effective, JARC has learned that it must have in-depth knowledge of worker and employer issues in a specific sector and strong relationships with multiple employers. This helps JARC to adjust program content quickly to meet employer demands and industry standards. As a result, 90 percent of program graduates are placed in related jobs. JARC has helped people to compete for living-wage jobs by continually staying on top of the needs of both companies and workers—and by regularly adapting to serve those needs. JARC also devised a program that gives students the math and reading skills they need to enter its more advanced technical programs.

The Fry Foundation has and continues to learn much from our forward thinking grantees like Instituto Progressando del Latino and Jane Addams Resource Corporation. For more information on the Fry Foundation’s Employment Program, please visit our website.