Originally posted on Opportunity Nation.
The middle class is back. With a downturn in the rate of Americans filing for unemployment, the country is now recovering from its worst recession since the Great Depression.
But while the economic recovery has been a resounding success, that fact hasn’t translated into the prosperity of everyone. The rates of unemployed workers – which peaked in October 2010 at 6.8% – have dropped to just 5.2% currently.
“We have been down so low on unemployment now that people say, ‘Oh, everyone is hired,’ and there’s not a lot of demand for positions,” says Robin Mestres, a labor economist at the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
But despite the drop in unemployment, fewer Americans are moving back into the labor force, with a record-low 91.7 million Americans out of work.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction, but not as quickly as we’d like,” says Tim Harding, co-director of Opportunity Nation , a public-private partnership aimed at boosting economic mobility for hard-hit communities across the country.
Harding says jobseekers should be convinced by the recession’s severity, and the widespread awareness of its effects. For some it has had the opposite effect, with them retreating from the job market completely. “It gave them a false sense of security, and they think it’s an easy path to the middle class. Some people have said to us, ‘I won’t ever return to the labor force. I don’t think it’s a chance I can lose.'”
Related: About the end of the road for working Americans
The loss of unionization and public assistance has diminished the benefits of higher pay, and the number of Americans working at a job that pays no more than $15 an hour has reached a record level, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
But opportunity remains. And a growing number of jobseekers are determined to fight their way back, spending some hard-earned cash in online advertisements and coaching sessions.
Inner cities, once traditionally low on employment, are seeing a labor shortage emerge in high-need areas, says Mestres. The places hardest hit in the recession – like Detroit and inner-ring suburbs – need to more effectively connect jobs to people ready to work.
“There’s incredible competition for workers in metro areas, and they’re not getting any kind of assistance with the trainings and supports that will put people on a career track,” she says.
Related: Lack of opportunities causes African-Americans to not seek out work
Mestres says one way to foster more productive, marketable skills is through internships. “A person who started at the bottom and says, ‘I want to go get a minimum-wage job,’ by the time they leave an internship, they have life experience and much better skills,” she says.
NELP suggests training programs that can help people build their job skills, like those run by the Baltimore-based Mentor Corps , which pairs former inmates with real employers, primarily in the banking industry. “The company gives them a little bit of guidance to increase their job prospects, but more importantly it’s about helping these men and women learn a new way of doing business – which means they will succeed after prison,” says Alicia Gaines-Killeen, president of Mentor Corps.
The organization hosts several programs in urban communities, where it helps jobs-less individuals get started on their second chances. But the struggle continues. More than 5.3 million people remain in need of jobs, and there are only 10 people in each job search, compared to 4 people on average in the past, according to figures from the Alliance for Excellent Education.
But while opportunity remains for hard-hit communities, turning that opportunity into success is still a struggle. “It’s a lot of hard work to find out where you’re going and how you’re going to make a living,” says Harding.