ESLARP East St. Louis Action Research Project
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Building Orpportunities

Chapter Two

Employability and Employment Sectors

Relevant Data and Recent Studies
Employability Issues
Current Job Sectors
Promising Job Sectors

The survey conducted with persons involved with employment issues in and around East St. Louis began with an investigation of previous research into factors seemingly affecting the employability of East St. Louis residents. It continued with interviewees being asked to identify what job sectors are currently most available to East St. Louis residents, as well as what job sectors might better serve these residents, presuming the opportunities could be created. After an introduction to some relevant data regarding the Metro-East region, as well as to recent studies on the topic of employability, these initial survey responses will be reviewed in detail.

Relevant Data and Recent Studies

Investigating the need for job training in a community must begin with looking at both past and current employment-related conditions within and surrounding that community. In addition to the economic and social factors in East St. Louis and in neighboring Belleville presented in the Introduction, there are several relevant indicators that relate directly to employment and employability.

Again comparing East St. Louis and Belleville, as well as providing county-wide data, several factors are important to note. The population decline in East St. Louis, and the increasing youth of the East St. Louis population relative to the rest of the county (as Tables 1, 2 and 6 indicated), have contributed to the decrease seen in the labor force. Changes in the civilian labor force have mirrored somewhat changes in population in both communities (see Appendix D, Table 15), but in East St. Louis in particular, many residents have remained without stable employment, increasing the percentage of those unemployed over time. In East St. Louis, the labor force has consistently declined over the past thirty or so years, from over 28,000 in 1960 to just under 15,000 in 1990, a 54 percent decrease. By contrast, Belleville has seen a steady and more stable increase over the same period, from just under 15,000 in 1960 to nearly 20,500 in 1990, a 37 percent increase. Countywide, the labor force increased nearly 28 percent over the same thirty years.

While the unemployment rate has increased over the years in both communities, the difference in severity is startling. Even in 1960, East St. Louis had an unemployment rate of over 10 percent, compared to a rate in Belleville of just over 4 percent. However, by 1990, the unemployment rate in East St. Louis was over three times that of Belleville, or nearly 25 percent as compared to 7.5 percent. Countywide, unemployment rates have been slightly higher than those in Belleville, but similar in their rate of increase (see Appendix D, Table 16). As unemployment rates have changed, median family income has increased at different rates in the two communities as well, with East St. Louis lagging behind Belleville by a margin of over two to one (as Table 3 in Appendix C indicated). Median family income in East St. Louis stood at $15,975 in 1990, while it was $33,930 in Belleville.

The education level attained by those 25 and over varies greatly between the two communities, with Belleville having a more educated, and thus a more readily employable work force, capable of attaining steady, well-paying jobs (see Appendix D, Table 17). While this relative difference has existed for decades, it was not as problematic when there was an abundance of manufacturing and other relatively low-skilled job opportunities available in and around East St. Louis. Structural changes in the regional economy that eliminated many of those jobs resulted in an East St. Louis population that is ill-equipped to compete in the job market today. The number of high school dropouts in residence in both communities is also starkly different, with East St. Louis having nearly three times as many (1.2 percent of the population, as compared to 0.4 percent in Belleville), per 1990 Census data. Education levels in Belleville and the county as a whole are quite consistent at around 15 percent college graduates and over 70 percent high school graduates (of those 25 and over in 1990). By contrast, of East St. Louis residents 25 and over, only about 56 percent are high school graduates, and not even 8 percent are college graduates.

Table 8 (see Appendix C) indicates the number of manufacturing, wholesale, retail and service establishments that have existed in both communities since 1948. The devastating effect on local job opportunities in East St. Louis is starkly portrayed in that data. The exodus from East St. Louis that occurred after the collapse of the manufacturing industry consisted in large part of the white, middle- and upper-class population that held managerial or higher-skill jobs that were relocated elsewhere. Left behind, without the means to relocate, were the many African-American workers in lower positions who lacked the general skills needed to move easily into other industries. These workers tended to stay in East St. Louis, where their families had established a strong community. Often, if they tried to relocate to other communities in the region, they faced discriminatory real estate practices. The resulting racial pattern in St. Clair County is one of nearly complete segregation in all-white and all-minority communities. One of the effects of having such a predominantly manufacturing-related employment base was that East St. Louis historically had a much higher African-American population than most communities of similar size (as Table 5 in Appendix C indicates), resulting from in-migration from the South as the Metro-East industrial sector boomed in the early 1900s. Belleville was always, and has remained, an almost entirely Caucasian community. Whether or not this is a central factor in the lack of employment opportunities in East St. Louis, it is a settlement pattern worth noting. While such segregation occurs in most American metropolitan areas, in the Metro-East region the situation is unusual. Jurisdictional boundaries closely mirror the lines of separation between communities with high unemployment and those with low unemployment, making regional public sector solutions to address the problem harder to implement.

There have been a number of publications in recent years about the issue of chronic unemployment in minority and low-income communities in the United States. Harry Holzer, in a recent book entitled 'What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educted Workers", identified four hypotheses that have been developed to explain this phenomenon. They were: a growing demand for skills, which young minority job-seekers often do not possess; deindustrialization, which has impacted black males more that any other demographic group; spatial relocations of employers, causing the new low-skill jobs that are available to be very difficult for centrally located residents to access; and, racial discrimination, which has risen for less-educated young black males even while overall discrimination has decreased in the last few decades.1 Holzer undertook an exhaustive study in four major cities (Atlanta, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles) to identify the demand-side characteristics that affect employability for less-educated workers, such as job availability and locations, and employer skill requirements and perceptions.2 His principal findings are summarized below:

In an earlier study, co-authored with Richard Freeman, Holzer presented data indicating that over the last four decades, unemployment among African-Americans and other "non-whites" has been roughly double that of Caucasians, nationwide.4 They also presented a summary of survey findings, in which the effects of several "variables" on black youth employment are presented. These data are summarized below:

An earlier study that focused on the same issue of black youth unemployment conducted surveys to discover the perspective of the unemployed youths themselves. While it may now be a bit dated, the findings in this 1980 study are worth noting. Elijah Anderson found that "particularly among black [male] inner city youth, there continues to exist a large amount of frustration and impatience with the rate of black inclusion into the American occupational structure."6 He wrote that after the Civil Rights movement and the urban riots of the 1960s, black identity and self-concept have undergone a significant change. Anderson noted that the generation of youths in 1980, unlike their parents, "are tending to be more selective about the jobs they will perform, and often will not accept employment and work conditions they consider to be demeaning."7 Therefore, it appears to be "distrust based on a changing self-concept and media stereotypes that contributes so profoundly to the intractable social problem of black youth unemployment."8

In another relevant study, Richard Murnane and Frank Levy, in a recent book entitled "Teaching the New Basic Skills", discuss the issue of the changing skills required to meet the new challenges of a changing economy. They make the interesting argument that, in today's world, the old methods of rote learning are not as important as being able to apply knowledge to solve problems. And, they note that "when it comes to succeeding on the job, initiative, flexibility and teamwork belong right up there with reading, writing and math."9 Their basic position is that, even without a college degree, it is possible to be successful in today's economy, but only if secondary education systems focus on these skill needs.

Employability Issues

The survey of area social service providers, educators and administrators conducted for this report began with questions related to the issue of employability of East St. Louis residents. While many respondents touched upon the external issues of transportation access and lack of employment sources within East St. Louis, their initial responses dealt almost exclusively with East St. Louis residents themselves. It must be noted that objective studies of employability barriers in the St. Louis region have not been conducted for this report. The survey responses that follow were provided by a variety of persons who are familiar with the challenges of the Metro-East job market from a variety of perspectives. The responses serve to demonstrate the perceptions that local people have about the employability issue, but were not verified through objective data sources afterward.

When asked to identify the major barriers to employability facing young residents of East St. Louis, and to identify job skills that are lacking in those same residents, responses were surprisingly consistent. While using different terminology, nearly everyone interviewed identified "intangible skills", "life skills", or "general skills" as being insufficient in many young East St. Louis residents. In expanding their answers, they often identified such skills as the ability to effectively inquire about employment (in person or over the phone), to write resumes, to dress appropriately for the workplace, to get along with others (especially authority figures), to be on time, to meet deadlines, and so on. Bill Miller, vice president for Human Resources at St. Mary's Hospital, a major private sector employer in East St. Louis, described the situation as "a lack of preparedness to meet the market", wherein young people do not understand the need to "bring value" to an employer. Many interviewees also felt that more tangible skills (such as writing, math and computer literacy) were also often lacking, even in those who had completed high school.

In general, the reasons given for these weaknesses were both insufficient career-related guidance for young people in school, and a lack of family support structures for many young people. Percy Harris, Enterprise Community Coordinator for the East St. Louis Community Development Block Grant office, mentioned that "options are not always presented to young people", meaning options other than pursuing a four-year college degree. As a result, young residents who are not college-bound are not made aware of other types of post-secondary education or direct school-to-work opportunities, and are thus left with few skills, low self-esteem and little motivation. One interviewee commented that, from grade school onwards, many East St. Louis youngsters are given the message that they should not expect to go to college, but viable alternative career paths are not presented to them. They are never challenged in the school setting to set high goals for themselves. In addition, many are living in situations where their only role models either did not require post-secondary education to make a reasonable living (and therefore do not provide sufficient "pressure" to do so), or are dependent upon government transfer payments and have been unable to communicate to their children that that cycle can be broken.

Some interviewees mentioned that appropriate support structures are lacking for young women who have become parents, especially when they have left school. These young women have a more difficult time than most in assessing available resources on their own, their career options are even more restricted, and their dependence on transfer payments is more serious than that of many other demographic groups. Many interviewees, however, felt that there are sufficient support services available (such as child care, funds for transportation cost support, job counseling, etc.), and that the problem is more one of awareness and motivation to pursue them. One interviewee mentioned that support is rather well coordinated, in that there is not a lot of duplication of services.

Interestingly, very few interviewees mentioned lack of available affordable child care as a major barrier. Child care is provided at several locations in East St. Louis, some of which subsidize the cost. As Chapter Three will discuss, funds are available to eligible job seekers for child care cost support. One criticism voiced was that child care options for those who work at off-hours, such as in the evenings, can be hard to find. Cheryl Lovell, director of the East St. Louis Housing Authority, mentioned that while having one child can sometimes be overcome as an employment barrier, many young women living in public housing have two or three children, a situation which can seem insurmountable.

A much more prevalent observation concerned a lack of affordable transportation options. One interviewee mentioned that he could see why someone would balk at spending several dollars every day to ride the MetroLink (the mass transit rail system that connects East St. Louis to St. Louis) so that they could work at a minimum wage job in St. Louis. The level of dependence on public transportation is significantly higher in East St. Louis, while Belleville falls much closer to the county average. This has been the case for some time, but may be decreasing (see Appendix D, Table 18). While in 1990 nearly 15 percent of East St. Louis residents were dependent upon public transportation, only 3 percent of Belleville residents were, closely matching the county percentage. The 1990 Census also indicated that there is an average of 1.0 vehicles per household in East St. Louis, and 1.5 vehicles per household in Belleville, mirroring the public transportation data. This situation further exacerbates the struggle faced by East St. Louis residents hoping to gain access to employment opportunities in the region. In the next few years, MetroLink will be extended further into Illinois, and will therefore provide better access to the region for East St. Louis residents. The effect of this increased access remains to be seen.

Only one interviewee specifically mentioned race as a factor limiting regional job opportunities for young East St. Louis residents, and only a few mentioned drug and alcohol abuse as an inhibiting factor. These issues were not probed further through direct questioning, nor was the topic hinted at by the interviewer. However, another interviewee did mention that East St. Louis residents who apply for jobs in St. Louis will often try to use the address of a Missouri resident, because an East St. Louis address can be "stigmatizing." While race and racial stereotyping were only explicitly stated by the one interviewee, they seemed to be in the subtext of the comments made by several others, such as the one just mentioned. Research conducted at the University of Illinois has identified a situation prevalent in many minority communities termed "equisystem distrust", meaning a fundamental lack of understanding and respect for the positions and motivations of those of another race, that goes both ways.10 The idea that simply being "from East St. Louis" has been and continues to be a significant barrier for young people is a serious issue that was not directly confronted with those interviewed, but merits further investigation.

When asked to describe the profile of a young person from East St. Louis who finds work, strong family ties and support were most often mentioned. Having a stable home life was seen as providing young people with needed self-motivation and communication skills, and with a better self-perception to bring to the workplace (terms mentioned were openness, a team orientation, ability to cooperate, and so on). Again, what exactly constituted "strong family support" was not fully explored with the interviewees who mentioned it. The implicit meaning seemed to be the existence of an adult role model who was successfully employed (rather than a two-parent household, regular activities as a family, or other such factors). Interviewees often mentioned that young people with a stable family background often have the motivation and ability to go on to college, and do not return to East St. Louis after they have earned a college degree. This "brain drain" was cited by numerous interviewees as a serious concern. As one support service provider put it, those left behind are in a "Catch-22" situation of having no job skills upon graduation, and no accessible jobs in which to gain that experience. They also finish school without the confidence and basic skills needed to potentially become entrepreneurs, and forge their own future if desired.

Current Job Sectors

A recent report compiled for the Illinois Job Gap Project, regarding the potential impact on Illinois of welfare reform, determined that currently statewide there is approximately one entry-level job for every five low-skilled workers, and in East St. Louis the number is one entry-level job for every nine low-skilled workers.11 The need to find new sources of entry-level and low-skill job opportunities is thus highlighted.

Following a general discussion of employability issues, interviewees were asked to identify the most prevalent types of jobs currently held by young East St. Louis residents. In the surveys conducted for this report, the general consensus concurred with the Job Gap Project report, and concluded that most job opportunities are in St. Louis or elsewhere in Missouri, often requiring a long commute. The current job market in St. Louis for low-skilled labor was described as competitive. The current job market in East St. Louis was described variously as "dismal," "non-existent," "limited," and so on. Several interviewees mentioned that most jobs available to East St. Louis residents are both low-paying and unstable so that even if employed, residents are not able to plan for the future. One noted that jobs available for young people are often only summer positions (at Six Flags amusement park and the St. Louis zoo, for example).

Regionally, the job sector most often identified as one in which East St. Louis residents find work was "services." Specifically, retail sales, food service, secretarial, data entry, and housekeeping or laundry positions were the most prevalent examples given. "Social service" positions such as day care providers or minimally-trained health care workers (such as nurse's aides) were also mentioned several times. The other sector mentioned was alternately called "light industrial" or "manufacturing." A few interviewees mentioned construction-related work as being on the upswing regionally, especially infrastructure repair projects.

The most often mentioned jobs sources in East St. Louis itself were not general sectors, but instead specific institutions. School District 189, Metropolitan Community College, Southern Illinois University's East St. Louis Center, St. Mary's Hospital, and the Casino Queen were all identified repeatedly as major local employers. The city was mentioned quite often, also. Many interviewees noted, however, that some level of skills were needed before employment with any of these entities was possible, and that public sector work in East St. Louis requires a "connection." For example, St. Mary's Hospital works with many area institutions to provide internships and externships to students, and does not hire completely inexperienced people. A few interviewees mentioned that occasionally young people could find work with a "Mom and Pop" business in East St. Louis, but only with "luck." Several interviewees also mentioned that, while the Casino Queen initially committed to a significant amount of local hiring, it has never achieved the agreed-upon level.

Table A: Survey Responses

Table A (previous page) summarizes the current job sectors mentioned during interviews and surveys, categorized by the perspective of the individual interviewed. The trends in the feedback contained in this section can, therefore, be more easily seen. The clear consensus is that most of the current job opportunities for young East St. Louis residents are in the service sector, as objective researchers might well have predicted.

Promising Job Sectors

The East-West Gateway Coordinating Council is nearing completion of a 15-month process of identifying sectors in which training may help chronically under-employed inner-city residents in the St. Louis region, and of identifying related barriers that need to be overcome for training to be successful. The project has funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to support the research, program implementation, detailed follow-up, and monitoring of results. Panels of area residents, agency staff, and others have been convened to discuss the issue. As a result of focus group sessions, health care, the construction trades and manufacturing are being pursued as promising sectors. This initiative will be discussed in more detail in later chapters.

After interviewees for this report identified current job sectors, they were asked which job sectors would be "promising" for young East St. Louis residents, if opportunities could be created. Table B (following page) summarizes the sectors mentioned by all interviewees, so that trends can be easily seen, and for ready comparison to the previously identified current job sectors (in Table A). The feedback summarized in Table B is further explained in this section.

In the surveys conducted, a wide variety of occupational areas were mentioned. The theme behind several of the suggestions seemed to be fostering entrepreneurial opportunities to create small service-related businesses. The nearly complete lack of basic services within East St. Louis was frequently mentioned as an untapped opportunity base, with empowerment of individuals to start their own businesses as a way to begin to enable East St. Louis residents to "buy local" and thus strengthen the economy. For example, providing skills needed for operating home-based businesses such as day care, senior home care, catering and even telemarketing was often mentioned. Possible changes in the health care industry focusing on preventive medicine and home-based care were noted as being a possible source of new job opportunities in the future. These trends will become stronger in the future, and jobs in this sector will require widely varying levels of training, in everything from aid in meal preparation and bathing to administering medications in the home or at community-based health centers. As this sector grows, training programs and licensing requirements will develop to match the increasing demand.

Aside from service-related suggestions, several other areas were mentioned. Most prevalent were computer or telecommunications-related occupations such as cable installation, or computer networking or repair services. Manual skills dealing with machinery and technological skills dealing with robotics were suggested as promising. It is often noted, however, that new technology and

Table B: Survey Responses

better inventory techniques have reduced the number of low-skilled workers needed in machinery or warehouse-related occupations. Barge or deckhand work was mentioned as a seldom-considered sector in the Metro-East region.

The final major area identified can be termed the "technical trades." This most often included mention of the building trades and auto mechanics. Interviewees viewed infrastructure repair work (highways, sewers, power lines, etc.) as a source of work, as well as recognizing a local need for physical revitalization that could be taken advantage of.

Bill Kreeb, director of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, a well-established community service center in the Emerson Park neighborhood, noted that while some training can allow residents access to fairly well-paying jobs, making the jump from a position such as a day care provider to one that pays significantly better (such as $25,000 per year) is very difficult, especially for those who never completed high school. In other words, training to get an entry-level job is not necessarily the same as training for a potentially secure career path.

The survey responses to this question lacked a clear consensus as to what avenue might be most fruitful to pursue. Some interviewees seemed to focus on the need to quickly get more people into jobs, with impending welfare reform the reason most often given. Others focused more on what job sectors would be most promising if long-term, systemic changes could be made. These long-term ideas, such as increasing entrepreneurial opportunities, or creating opportunities in health care or the building trades, seemed to be based on a desire to provide a career path. The logistics of providing access to these job sectors was beyond the scope of the interviews conducted. Only one access tool- job training- and only one potential sector option- the building trades- were further explored. The results of that research and those discussions follow in Chapters 3 and 4, respectively.


1. Holzer, Harry J.. "What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers". page 3.

2. Holzer, Harry J.. "What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers". page 5.

3. Holzer, Harry J.. "What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers". pages 18-19.

4. Freeman, Richard B., Harry J. Holzer. "The Black Youth Unemployment Crisis". page 7.

5. Freeman, Richard B., Harry J. Holzer. "The Black Youth Unemployment Crisis". page 10.

6. The American Assembly, Columbia University. "Youth Employment and Public Policy". page 65.

7. The American Assembly, Columbia University. "Youth Employment and Public Policy". page 65.

8. The American Assembly, Columbia University. "Youth Employment and Public Policy". page 66.

9. "Hire Education: Do you need college to get a good job?". Newsweek. September 30, 1996. page 52.

10. Discussion with Professor Harry Triandis, Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, University of Illinois, in February 1997.

11. Carlson, Virginia L., Nikolas C. Theodore. "Are There Enough Jobs?: Welfare Reform and Labor Market Reality". Illinois Job Gap Project, Woods Fund, Chicago. self-published. December 1995.

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Last modified: May 21, 1997

Chapter 2

East St. Louis Action Research Project
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