At age 33 and boasting an Ivy League graduate degree, Kitama Cahill-Jackson never thought he’d end up a security guard.
But after years of layoffs and coming in second in job interviews, the Emmy Award–winning documentary filmmaker took the job.
Cahill-Jackson dreamed of a career as a news producer. But now, after years of unsuccessfully searching for journalism jobs, he said he can’t even look at the news.
“When I got to work at 4:30 in the morning, I would listen to NPR. I don’t listen anymore because it makes me sad. That’s the career I didn’t have,” he said.
“I don’t read the paper because it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that I put on this uniform every day and come in here, and I’m not seen as a professional. I worked so hard academically, and for all of that, to work at a job that only requires a GED.”
Cahill-Jackson is among the more than half of black college graduates who are underemployed, according to a study (PDF) released by the Center for Economic Policy and Research this month.
Recent black college grads ages 22 to 27 have an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, more than double the 5.6 percent unemployed among all college grads in that demographic and almost a threefold increase from the 2007 level of 4.6 percent, before the Great Recession took its toll on the U.S. economy. More than half of black graduates, 55.9 percent, are underemployed.
Even for those who enter the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, areas where grads are the most needed and paid the highest, African-Americans still have a 10 percent unemployment rate and a 32 percent underemployment rate.
The study’s authors blame racism, a faltering economy and an unequal playing field.
“We live in a racist society,” John Schmitt, one of the authors, told Al Jazeera.
“We internalize a lot of views about the way people are that are deeply embedded in a lot of our economic and social policies. It’s extremely complicated, but the first step is that we need to acknowledge that we have a problem.”
Graves pointed out that family background and the level of wealth and someone is born into also play roles.
“I come from a generation where I’m the first black woman in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and I’m working on my master’s, so my parents can’t really give me advice because they don’t fully understand what I’m going through,” she said.
“Whereas my counterparts, a lot of their parents have master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, so they can almost put their children in a position that can help them start their career.”
For years, a college education has been seen as the gateway to a better future. But with such a disparity in employment rates, that may no longer be the case.
“If that is not working, then what is our mechanism for upward mobility?” asked Schmitt.
Cottom put it another way. “This is the problem in thinking that education can solve all the issues created by racism,” she said. “It’s a great thing, but it cannot be our single solution for every economic and social problem. We have to do more.”
Cahill-Jackson and Graves have both decided to return to school in the fall. Graves is pursuing her master’s in the hopes more education will make her more desirable to employers, but Cahill-Jackson is changing careers. He wants to be a social worker.
He knows taking on more debt could be risky for him, but it’s better than staying where he is now.
“There’s a part of me that is hoping maybe this time it will work out,” he said.