Workplace diversity a victim of recession

Raw numbers ultimately tell the story of the nation’s economic fortunes in good times and bad.

And in this recession, the numbers indicate diversity has been swept out of American offices, shops and factory floors – along with 15.1 million lost jobs.

“It is always African-Americans, new immigrants and poor whites that get caught up in a recession and are therefore hurt the greatest,” says Claude Brown Sr., the president of the St. Louis Chapter of the NAACP.

Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Data – and analyzed in a report issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis – suggests that the Great Recession of 2007-09 is no exception.

Not by a long shot.

African-American workers have lost jobs at a rate 50 percent higher than white employees over the last two years, according to the study prepared by Howard Wall, a St. Louis Fed economist and vice president.

Wall found the gap is even more profound when unemployment is broken down by gender:

Projecting the volume of jobs lost had recession not interrupted the trajectory of the economy, Wall determined that black women are now unemployed at a rate (10.8 percent) twice that of white women (5.4 percent).

“There are a lot of unfortunate effects of the recession, one being that many of the gains made by black women over the last 20 years have been erased,” said Wall.

Defying the odds, workers in some sectors have dodged the unemployment bullet.

Wall’s study determined, for instance, that the unemployment rate among Hispanics has dropped by less than a percentage point over the last 23 months.

“The downturn in the economy has hurt, but not as bad as we thought it would,” said Jorge Riopedre, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater St. Louis.

Riopedre gives credit for the relatively low numbers to the employers he says are reaching out to bilingual customers and clients.

Robyn Berkley says businesses that have watched diversity walk out the door following a layoff can trace the loss of diversity to a basic tenet of hiring economics.

“As organizations moved to become more diverse, their more recent hires have been minorities and women,” said the assistant professor of business at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

“If laying off is based on seniority, then seniority trumps.”

Kathy Osborn, executive director of the Regional Business Council, points out that many companies have, in fact, maintained a well-balanced work force over the last 23 months.

For those businesses, Osborn said, recruitment is just the first step in an overall strategy to “cultivate and promote” women and minorities.

A company that invests in the future of its employees by actively enlisting them in color- and gender-blind training and advancement programs is more likely to value that investment when decisions are made about who should stay and who should go during economic declines.

“If you’ve been doing that all along, I would not suspect you’d see any change in diversity,” said Osborn.

With the country pulling out of the recession, firms that haven’t strived to diversify middle and top management may now be forced to start the process of broadening their employment pool anew.

Forecasts of jobs lagging far behind other segments of the economic recovery, the experts say, could mean that the diversification of many businesses may be a long time coming.

“Obviously, it is going to be a slow, slow process,” said Jim Breaugh, a management professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

When it comes to hiring, Breaugh believes men will lag behind other employment groups as the effects of the recession begin to end.

The reason, he notes, is a short-term employment market that is expected to offer more positions in health care, retail services and education — jobs that traditionally attract women.

Wall, though, believes the jobless recovery will, for the most part, be indiscriminate.

“We’re still looking at two years until overall employment returns to where it was when the recession began,” said the Federal Reserve official. “

And that’s the optimistic story. That’s not for groups that have a much steeper hole to climb out of.”

Copyright (c) 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.