Human Capital

Battling to Save Professional Men of Color from Career Derailment

Keeping gains is critical in a shifting, downsizing economy

Men from minority backgrounds have made large strides in the professional workforce over the last several decades. The current economic crisis is putting those gains in jeopardy, with high youth unemployment and African American and Hispanic populations encountering increased layoffs of existing minority professionals.

The problem isn’t limited to the North American markets, either. Though an estimated one in six black men is unemployed in America according to MSNBC, the UK markets report that 49 percent of black or black British people are without a job, according to The Guardian. The exodus doesn’t appear to be driven by any one factor, but is rather a combination of challenges that add up to long-term unemployment and career derailment. To fight back, it is important to understand the challenges being faced by professional men of color, the keys to staying in the workforce, and the tools and strategies that can be used to reverse this trend.

Top Challenges for Men of Color

Some of the biggest challenges facing professional men of color today have their roots in the cultural norms of the past. Previously, it was customary to proceed straight from high school to the workforce, bypassing higher education. But now, college degrees are increasingly valued, leaving those who don’t have them at a competitive disadvantage to white men and women who hold more degrees on a percentage of population basis. Though work experience does help, many automated recruiting programs favored at large firms screen out non-degree holders. What seemed like a smart personal choice or necessary economic move ten years ago is now a hindrance.

Government contractor jobs and municipal jobs were another mainstay for men of color, but nationwide government jobs are being cut. These jobs have long been considered safe havens, especially since the levels of perceived discrimination were lower. Diversity programs also helped, as did opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, and volunteer matches through community networking groups. All of these development programs are now being curtailed due to budget issues in many areas.

Along with these two major issues, discrimination remains a pervasive and lingering concern in the professional environment. Matched pair trials at job hunting events in Chicago show that white candidates are offered the job 16 percent more often than black candidates, all other factors being equal. Professional men of color have this ongoing challenge with them on top of the other obstacles they must overcome.

Keys to Staying in the Workforce

To stay in the workplace, men of color need to sharpen their technical skills, build their communication skills, and actively network. These three things will help them stand out in a crowded marketplace, resonate with employers as professionals, and access internal job openings that are not yet being openly advertised.

Technical skill-building brings professional men of color multiple advantages. First, it keeps their skills current, endearing them to their current employers as well as recruiters who are looking for people with recent relevant experiences. Next, new certifications or training can offset the lack of a college degree. Finally, many training programs are heavily monitored by recruiters, helping minority men get on the radar of interested employers.

Building communications skills helps men of color navigate the modern employment market smoothly and tackle sensitive issues positively in interviews. According to black employment counselor Anthony Quinones, frustration about a job search or anger at circumstances can impact interviews, and communication skills help candidates move on to focus on the future and what is possible with the current opportunity. Being able to express a positive attitude and smoothly answer questions impresses recruiters and managers.

Finally, networking is vital in the current market environment. Employers are hesitant about doing any kind of hiring, so a recommendation from a current employee can tip the balance. Similarly, men of color who are well-connected in their current roles through affinity groups and employee networks are better able to find new opportunities even when their existing jobs are being cut.

Tools and Strategies to Reverse the Trend

While men of color are taking their own active role in preserving their careers, corporations can also play a part. Mentorship programs, networking events, and cross-training opportunities can all help prevent minority career derailment.

Mentorship is one thing many talented young men of color don’t have. In an interview with top students featured in The Black Collegian, young men had everything going for them except strong mentoring relationships. Corporate-sponsored mentorship programs for new professionals or as outreach would fill this gap, and it would be particularly beneficial for white males to play a role. As the current holders of the reins in the business world, white men could provide invaluable bridges for black professionals, opening doors and helping them smoothly navigate corporate politics. Frankly, a strong mentor of any race or gender is preferable to the current mentorship gap.

Networking and cross-training initiatives would also help. Minority professionals often turn to their own networks or areas of specialty when needing career assistance, but broadening those worlds would help uncover new opportunities. Corporations that can create these events and training opportunities stand a better chance of retaining and growing their own top minority talent.

The job market today may seem to be a perfect storm of disaster for professional men of color, but there are options and strategies available. Career derailment can be avoided with proactive personal development and by taking advantage of any and all corporate-sponsored programs and mentorship opportunities. In this way, the growing representation of men of color in the professional world can continue despite the current global economy.