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Posted under: Opinion

My journey trying to get a job in post-Katrina New Orleans

Fresh out of college, my move to New York City landed me face-flat on the concrete. According to the city’s fellow newcomers, I had two options:

1) Work two or three minimum-wage jobs and pay an unspeakable amount for half a bedroom an eternity’s commute from said jobs.

2) Leave.

Despite being the most educated generation, employment opportunities for Millennials are bleak at best. The Millennial unemployment rate sits at 15.2 percent. For black Millennials such as myself, it's even worse: 22.6 percent. Weighing my options, I left for Louisiana. It's cheaper and doesn’t snow, but the market was still far from promising: 29 percent of New Orleans lives in poverty. Only 59 percent of working-age black women and 53 percent of working-age black men are employed. A third of households earn less than $20,000 annually, including 44 percent of black residents.

Maha: 0, Job Hunt: 1

Prerequisites for moving back to New Orleans, my hometown and where I attended college, included a source of income and some savings, so I found myself stranded over an hour’s drive away where my family was displaced after Hurricane Katrina. My family isn't unique in this respect, and neither am I — 25 percent of Millennials move home due to financial hardship, compared with 10 percent of Generation X, and a large percentage of the city’s pre-storm black population remains scattered across the country, unable to return. I got one call back from a retail store a 40-minute commute away.  I was promised $7.25 an hour. I knew I shouldn’t be shocked: 4 in 10 minimum wage workers are college graduates. I was also promised 40 hours a week —I got 28.  I lasted six miserable weeks.

Maha: 0, Job Hunt: 2

I hated that store anyway. "I can spend more time job-hunting now," I told myself until the unexpected medical bills came. A temp agency hired me. I worked only a couple assignments before the calls become so infrequent that I was basically unemployed again.

Maha: 0, Job Hunt: 3

I then declared it official — no employer remotely related to my degree wants to hire me. I opened myself up to anything available. What do clothing shops, dollar stores, attended parking lots, grocery chains, medical offices, banks and the zoo all have in common? They don’t want me either. But AmeriCorps New Orleans hired me. My monthly stipend divided by hours worked was minimum wage, if I rounded up. I lived in the part of the city most underserved by public transportation, so despite the site placement’s relative proximity to my house, getting to work was a struggle. Then the bus routes changed and it became nearly impossible. I complained to my cousin, a barista without a degree. She out-earned me by a couple dollars an hour but said I’m lucky because at least I have consistent hours and networking possibilities. She's barely holding onto her apartment, and she’s not alone. About 60 percent of New Orleans residents rent and steady price increases have lead to 54 percent of renters paying unaffordable amounts. Millennial unemployment discussions typically focus on college graduates saddled with nightmare-ish student debt, overlooking those without degrees who also suffer in a scarce, competitive market with ever-rising qualification requirements. Had it been a different decade, my cousin’s high school diploma could have meant something more. The “job hunt,” better known as the “fight for survival and peace of mind,” felt inescapable. In New Orleans, whether the contestants be black with higher education (like myself) or black without (like my cousin), this game is cruel to all of us. All of Us: 0, Job Hunt: 4 I started job-hunting five months before my ten-month contract ended. I convinced myself it would be better with post-college work experience. My supervisor was impressed with my work and insisted that, with enough determination, I would find something. I scanned job listings daily. Low-paying tourism jobs made up the city’s largest employment sector. Its wages averaged $10/hr, but with inconsistent schedules, pay was less predictable. After passing those posts, I was left with few choices. 1. Part-time... Master’s preferred. 2. Full-time. Bachelor’s, fluency in Spanish, 3+ years experience required…$9/hr. 3. Low-level position, sh*t pay, no chance for advancement… five rounds of 'Hunger Games'-esqe interview process participation required. I got several interviews, but no offers. My supervisor was prying again. I swallowed back all the Millennial employment statistics I'd ever spit. I felt stuffed. I wanted to vomit. I wondered if I was just doing it all wrong and had been my own worst enemy all along. While writing yet another cover letter, I scanned the employer’s website and read a mission statement about improving New Orleans. From the staff page, faces of white transplants smiled at me, just like almost every other employer’s website I’d combed, and just like the staff of my current placement at the time. I recalled what a higher-up here said: "We want diversity and we want to hire local, but we find few that are qualified or the right fit for our team."

All of Us: 0, Job Hunt: 5

If I had to name every graduate I know who stayed local and found decent-paying, full-time positions in their degree field, it'd be a short list. Nationally, only 51 percent of college graduates work in their field of study, while only 48 percent of graduates under age 25 work jobs that require a degree at all. African Americans have the highest underemployment rate at 42.6 percent. My cousin’s hours were cut. Her dad offered her rent-free living with him in Houston. She wanted to stay in New Orleans, but she left anyway. I hope she comes back. She hopes so, too.

All of Us: 0, Job Hunt: 6

"Maybe this is a sign to further my education," I thought. I eased myself into believing that a Master’s degree would greatly increase my chances. Or greatly increase your debt, a voice says. I tell my mind to hush. I met with a program director and asked if recent graduates had found employment locally. She paused to arrange her words. “Well, a lot wanted to leave. Of those who stayed, the ones willing to move elsewhere in-state were able to find jobs eventually.” I asked again, “What about locally?” She paused again. The only sound in the office was the faint death wail from my wildest dream of stable employment. “It might take a longer time, but eventually something comes up.” I press for explanation. She slowly squeezed out that New Orleans is a small city and can only provide a limited number of jobs — even fewer that pay a living wage. Add to the mix a yearly shipment of transplants with visions of art, edge and culture—renewal—and you have a recipe for high local un- and underemployment. My suspicions are proven correct, but my shoulders slump under the weight of defeat. I applied, pretending economic conditions would improve in two years and I would be able to pay off my soon-to-be-doubled student debt. I almost convinced myself the stakes wouldn't be twice as high.

All of Us: 0, Job Hunt: 7

Our AmeriCorps terms are ending. Only one of my co-workers found a job — it pays $20,000 annually. Some plan to return to school. The rest shrug when questioned. My now-former supervisor took me out to lunch. She asked and I updated her on my job hunt. She told me I was right about stable employment being scarce. She recalled a local black man she dated months ago. He had a degree in biology but worked in food service, then construction. She didn’t understand why at the time and faulted him for it. I can’t decide if it feels good to be right. Levees surely did break during Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago, and amidst the floodwaters came “rebuilders” who didn’t leave once the water dried. Gentrification is a nationwide problem, but locally, it is a way to push out the “undesirables” left over after the storm. Public housing closed. Transplants arrived to “rebuild” the city into something foreign, blaming all the problems of crime and poverty on the inherently wrong, unique culture of New Orleans — especially black New Orleans. With so many employers being transplants themselves or, if local, still aligned with the purge, discrimination in hiring is inevitable; black, local hires would, as put previously, “not be a right fit for the team.”

All of Us: 0


 

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