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Whose Boat the Economy Isn't Floating

Black teens and the unskilled are among those still jobless despite buoyant labor market

In the economy of the "roaring '90s," unemployment has dipped to its lowest level in a quarter century - and is expected to move even lower today when the latest labor statistics are released. But don't tell that to Wilfredo Soto or Roberto Fernandez.

Mr. Soto, an unemployed chemical worker in this lunch-pail city, lost his factory job last November when the company "downsized." Despite knocking on doors for eight months, he hasn't been able to find work to match his skills. Mr. Fernandez, a black teen in Brooklyn, N.Y., can find jobs in his neighborhood, but most are entry-level fast-food positions - something he doesn't want.

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Soto and Fernandez represent two segments of the work force - inner-city teens and people with the wrong skills in the wrong place - who remain unemployed despite one of the strongest labor markets in decades.

While the nation's jobless rate is expected to drop below 5 percent today - a rate many economists consider virtually full employment - some 6.8 million people remain on the unemployment rolls. Many are people, like Soto, who lost manufacturing jobs in plant shutdowns and can find work elsewhere in the country but don't want to move. Others don't have the necessary skills or education to get jobs in an increasingly high-tech economy. Still others won't work for $5 or $6 an hour.

"If you can't find a job in this economy, you may be holding out for wages higher than the market can provide," says Audrey Freedman, a New York-based labor economist.

The job market remains particularly stubborn for black teenagers. Last month, the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 32.7 percent of all black teenagers were out of work compared to 14.5 percent of the white teens. A Department of Labor fact sheet published last year blamed lower levels of schooling, the tendency to work in jobs that get laid-off first, and "the likelihood of a greater degree of discrimination in the workplace."

The discrimination has a cooling effect on teenage aspirations. Young blacks often don't feel they can trust white employers, says Lewis Howard, a retired professor who also works with young people in Central Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. "You find they don't wish to participate in the white world ... they would rather see if they could make it on the streets," says Mr. Howard.

View from Brooklyn

A lot of frustrated black teenage job hunters end up at the Crown Heights Service Center, a social services agency in Brooklyn. "Most have almost no experience and most want to be able to go on a job with certain money without qualifications,"says Gwen Harmon, executive director of the service center.

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For example, she says many unemployed minority teens won't work for Arbys or McDonald's or Burger Kings that pay only minimum wage.

"That's the last, last, last resort," says Fernandez, as he watches a basketball game in lower Manhattan. "That's when there is no more hope," says the recent high school graduate who plans to attend Pace University in the fall.

Teenage Hispanic females - with an unemployment rate of about 23 percent - are also finding it difficult to get jobs. That's certainly the case of Angela Cisneros, a 17-year old, who is looking for office work before heading to college this fall. She has sent out scores of applications but has yet to hear back from any employers. She blames "bad luck," but Mr. Howard says it is more likely a case of "no marketable skills."

The long wait

Once a minority enters the ranks of the unemployed, they are more likely to remain unemployed for a longer period of time. For example, black women remain unemployed almost 40 percent longer than white women, and black men are out of work 16 percent longer than white males.

Some of these trends are illustrated at the Labor Ready office here in Bridgeport, Conn. Labor Ready, a Tacoma-based organization, provides temporary labor to factories and contractors. Waiting for work is Kevin Gaymon and his girlfriend, Domini. Mr. Gaymon, who has worked as a shipping clerk, estimates he has been jobless for 3 years. He survives on welfare.

Domini, who does not have a high school diploma, has been looking for work on an assembly line for about six months. But she has yet to find anything - in large part because she has no car. "It's a big issue," she says as she reads the want ads in the local newspaper.

If she perseveres, she is likely to find some work. Ralph Peterson, the chief operating officer of Tacoma-based Labor Ready, says the average worker only stays with the temporary employer for 90 hours before they find a full-time job.

"Often it ends up where they are temporarily employed so there is a strong incentive to do a bang-up job," he says.

The job market is generally so vibrant that workers are now quitting their jobs that they don't like. "I know people who have quit and said, 'I know I can get another job,' " says economist Freedman. "But it may take a while if they are picky."

Freedman says employers are rapidly reaching the point where even less attractive workers are getting hired. For example, companies are starting to hire workers on welfare. "Employers are being driven closer and closer to the end of the line," she says.

If Domini can't find work, she will likely become known as a "discouraged worker," who just stops looking for work. Unfortunately, this is a likely scenario. The participation rates among minorities are still low despite the economic boom.

This saddens economist Freedman. "There is nothing that quite defines American society like work," she says.

* Laura Siegel contributed to this report from New York.

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