‘A Job Looking For a Job’

February 21, 2008

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Robertson searches online for jobs opportunities.
In Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, jobs were scarce before anyone started forecasting a recession. Twenty-two-year-old Arthur Robertson knows that first hand. For the last several months, he's been desperately looking for work—with no luck. Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore has been checking in with Robertson on the job search. She reports that so far, Robertson has steered clear of a job in the local drug trade, but he's increasingly worried about how he's going to provide for his family.

This has been just an OK week for Arthur. It's Friday and he's still job searching with no returned phone calls, no employment handshakes.

ROBERTSON: You get frustrated though, seriously. It's a job looking for a job. I'm putting myself out there.

ambi of computer

Arthur spends mornings searching online for entry level jobs: a line worker, prep cook or dishwasher. On many afternoons, he has wandered up and down South Western Avenue knocking on store doors. Arthur's skills are poor—he's the product of a Chicago public school system that allowed him to graduate while still learning to read.

ambi: Arthur reading

But a poor education isn't his only problem. Arthur's mother is a crack-addict, and his father a drug dealer. So the family lifestyle rarely provided him with the life skills that come in handy now.

PORTER: Arthur, for example, can be rather loud.

That's Stefanie Porter, Arthur's case manager.

When I first met Arthur, Porter had just helped him complete a job training course with Goodwill Industries.

PORTER: And just helping him in lowering his tone or speaking more clear with more confidence.

Porter works with Arthur to hone his “soft skills.” She says he's a model client. But a couple months after that training, Arthur still hadn't found work.

ROBERTSON: I just try to stay positive knowing that I'm taking the effort and the time to look for the jobs. Hopefully, soon, it'll just pay off.

Hope is the key word here. Blacks between the ages of 16 and 25 have the highest unemployment rate in Illinois, about 16 percent. And three-quarters of those out of work are not in school either. Arthur himself gets discouraged. We sat down in a restaurant a couple of weeks ago to talk about why hadn't gotten any job offers yet.

ambi of restaurant

ROBERTSON: There's always a problem. It's always some time of problem. Either they don't call me back, stay too far out the area. I'm overqualified, I'm under-qualified.

Arthur knows it'd be almost too easy for him to sell drugs. He's got friends and family on the corner. He now has a two-month old baby girl to support. In his early teens, Arthur dabbled in selling drugs. It left a bad taste.

ARTHUR: It all comes down to me looking at the people who's on the block now. Thirty-something years old, some of them over 40 years old. I just don't want that to be me.
 
It's this attitude that convinced Theonita Wright she needed to help Arthur out. As his former counselor at Englewood High School, she saw how he wrecked constant havoc. She's also seen him grow up and change. She's rooting for Arthur and, on her own time, mentoring him.

WRIGHT: I think a lot of people miss that quality in life. They just give up. And it was easy for him to because he had this lifestyle. His whole family is surrounded in that kind of life. It's easy for him to make 1,000 dollars a day selling drugs with his cousins. It's easy for him to fall into the cracks. But for some reason it's like this light in him won't let him fail not matter what. I want to help him pull out that light.

Wright has persuaded Arthur to pull up his sagging pants and fix the Ebonics. She still worries that his looks—he's 6'2, weighs 300 pounds, hair braided to the back—might unfairly be making the job hunt harder. At one of their weekly check ins, Wright and Arthur discuss his fear of losing himself.

WRIGHT: You feel like you are not being your true self when you behave...
ROBERTSON: I feel like I'm being phony.
WRIGHT: It's not phony if it becomes part of your persona. You got to look at life in three dimensional. You don't treat your boys on the street the way you treat your woman. You can't or you're not going to have a successful relationship. Right? So why would you treat your workplace the same way you treat your boys then you're not going to have successful employment. If you continue to be one-dimensional then you're always going to be in this struggle of self.

There's no resolution on this weekday afternoon but Arthur is contemplating cutting his hair and going to Washburn Culinary Institute.

Arthur doesn't have much of a work history, but he has dreams of owning a restaurant and being a chef. He won't reveal any cooking secrets except something special he does to cauliflower.

ROBERTSON: I love meats, too. I put fruit and meat, certain types of meat. Trust me, it doesn't work with a lot like ground beef.

He likes to prepare a whitefish and strawberry combination.

Arthur has tried working for himself. For two summers, he used the legal underground economy to make money. He piled candy, pop, potato chips, cookies and sour pickles in a buggy and strolled the neighborhood. The natural entrepreneur spent $50 and earned $200. When the weather got cold, he tried selling out of his apartment. Candy wrappers strewn in the hallway and neighbor complaints shut that operation down.

ambi of house full of people

Saturday night and Arthur's in good spirits. He'd filled out a grocery store application and felt he'd had a good conversation with the boss. He's at his sister-in-law's West Englewood two-story home. There's no pressure here.

His daughter's mother is in the kitchen, on a weekend pass from the shelter she lives in. Her name is Tiffany. She balances Arthur's concern with calmness. Over the last few months she's seen a maturity in the man who makes her laugh.

TIFFANY: We're trying to stay positive, keep a positive outlook on things. Because things are better than they were for us.

His baby Delaena wakes from her evening slumber. She's got big cheeks and is perfecting a smile.

ROBERTSON: This is my pride and joy. I never felt this feeling before. I cant even describe it.

Here in his lap is the reason Arthur wants to move out of his mother's Section 8 apartment and get off of foods stamps. He'd like to live in Hyde Park and provide Delaena and Tiffany with a stable environment. But at this point, all he can count on for sure is his own fortitude.

Im Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.