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Image: Paul Townsend via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image: Paul Townsend via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

by Devah Pager & David S. Pedulla

Discrimination in hiring continues to limit the opportunities available to racial minorities, with important consequences for their economic security and career trajectories. But, how do racial minorities respond to this reality when they are searching for employment? Some argue that job seekers tailor their searches in ways that allow them to avoid discrimination. Others suggest that job seekers adapt by casting a wider net in their search.

Until now, we have known little about this process, largely because no existing data source has closely followed individuals through their job search. In recent research, we attempt to address this limitation by drawing on two original datasets that track job seekers and the positions to which they apply. The results of our study point to three general conclusions about patterns of self-selection and job search:

1) Broader Job Search among African Americans than Whites: African Americans cast a wider net in their job search than similarly situated whites. Specifically, they include a greater range of occupation types and occupational characteristics among the jobs to which they apply. For example, consider one of our respondents whose last job was as a “material moving worker.” Over the course of the survey, this respondent applied for jobs consistent with his prior work experience, such as “material handler” and “warehouse worker.” However, the respondent also reported applying for jobs in retail sales, as an IT technician, a delivery driver, a security guard, a mailroom clerk, and a short order cook. This respondent applied to jobs in a total of seven distinct occupations over the course of the survey, reflecting a fairly broad approach to job search. While this is just one example, in both of the datasets we examined African Americans systematically applied to a larger number of distinct job types than whites with similar levels of education and work experience.

2) Narrower Job Search among Women than Men: Our study demonstrates that the search strategy of African Americans appears very different from that of women. Women self-select into distinctive (and highly gendered) occupational categories, considering a narrower range of occupational types and characteristics over the course of their job search relative to similarly situated men.

3) Labor Market Discrimination Appears to Drive Search Behavior: We find that perceptions of or experiences with racial discrimination play an important role in explaining the greater search breadth exhibited by African American job seekers. Individuals who have witnessed or experienced racial discrimination in the workplace are more likely to cast a wide net in their job search relative to those without such experience.

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Last week saw the release of monthly employment data by the Labor Department. At face value, the overall news was good – the unemployment rate in the United States, at approximately 8.6%, is at its lowest projected level in years. However, as a recent op-ed in The Economist noted, the state of the union remains dire. Much of the malaise can be felt within the ostensibly improving American job market, where in spite of some good news there are plenty of reasons to remain cautious.

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