In New Orleans, A Deeper Look at Jobs Data Catalyzes Economic Strategy Focused on Connecting Black Men to Work

21 Oct 2014 | J. Mijin Cha
In New Orleans, A Deeper Look at Jobs Data Catalyzes Economic Strategy Focused on Connecting Black Men to Work
Above: Matthew Hinton/The Advocate

Data can be a jarring wake up call and prompt major institutional action. In 2013, the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola University and The Data Center released a report on the economic potential for African American men in New Orleans with findings nothing less than shocking:

  • More than half of all working-age African American men – 52 percent – did not have jobs.
  • Four out of every 10 black men were not in the labor market, meaning they were discouraged and stopped looking for work.  
  • Between 1999 and 2011, the median wages of African American men fell while median wages for white men rose.
  • The median wage of white men in New Orleans, $60,075, is nearly twice that of African American men, $31,018.

Honing in on the key equity challenge

New Orleans would never be able to reverse its economic decline without addressing the employment and wage crisis among its African American men. As Allison Plyer, executive director of The Data Center says, "Black men are often marginalized as part of the solution for a lot of our community problems. You only have to think about that for a couple of minutes to see that’s silly."

While data collection was the necessary first step, knowing what data to present and how to present it was key to getting the right attention from decision makers. "There was a lot of data that we pulled together and it took some strategy not to release all of it. We wanted to highlight those pieces that really speak to the specific concerns and issues that leaders are thinking about and shift their attention to equity issues," Plyer said.

Prompting mayoral action  

The strategy succeeded. Calling the unemployment rate, "unacceptable," the Mayor's office worked with several stakeholders and advocacy groups, including PolicyLink, and in August 2014 Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced an ambitious economic opportunity strategy with a focus on connecting these men to the job opportunities associated with the city’s growing sectors.

"Who are the 52 percent? What are their barriers to employment?  How can we ensure that the people who need work are matched with employers who have jobs? said Landrieu. "What types of skills are employers looking for? And, how can we ensure the people of New Orleans rebuild New Orleans so that we do not leave anyone behind?"

Through focus groups and surveys, the city found a variety of issues preventing these 52 percent from securing jobs. Some individuals needed more training, some needed more education, and some, "just need to be given an opportunity." This information helped the Mayor’s office tailor their jobs program. 

Leveraging the economic power of anchor institutions  

The strategy builds around the strength of economic opportunities offered by the city’s anchor institutions – including hospitals, universities, and the New Orleans International Airport. The goal is to "pave the way for New Orleans to close the income gap and create equity for all New Orleanians."

The Strategy has generated $1.1 million in foundation support and the city is also leveraging its workforce and community development resources toward the effort. Several large employers and anchor institutions have stepped up as partners, including CMC Health, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Ochsner Health System, Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, Tulane University, and Xavier University of New Orleans.

Implementation will begin in Fall 2014 with five main strategies:

  1. Establish a collaborative of local anchor institutions committed to expanding economic opportunity to disadvantaged job seekers and businesses.
  2. Create a workforce intermediary that connects disadvantaged job seekers to employment opportunities through anchor institutions, providing case management, foundational skills training and supportive services.
  3. Start a procurement intermediary that connects qualified disadvantaged businesses to contracting opportunities through anchor institutions.
  4. Build a worker-owned cooperative that connects job seekers to employment by leveraging procurement and purchasing opportunities through anchor institutions.
  5. Establish and align customized job training based on employer needs that prepares disadvantaged job seekers for in-demand jobs through anchor institutions and major infrastructure projects. 

City and business community embrace equity as a growth strategy

Through the support and information provided by the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy and The Data Center, New Orleans is galvanizing city resources and the business community to fight the unacceptably high rate of non-employment among working-aged black men. The data on non-employment helped not just the Mayor’s office make equitable employment a priority for the mayor, it also helped the New Orleans Business Alliance make equity a priority. Plyer said that after the data was released, she received a call from the Business Alliance asking if they could highlight the non-employment data point to justify using equity as a growth strategy in their strategic plan for economic development.