The financial crisis and the slow healing from the recession has plummeted employment opportunities. While every group is suffering, the Asian Pacific Islander community seems to inch slightly better than the rest. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the API community has the overall lowest unemployment rate in the country.
Perhaps employers are grouping all Asians under the “model minority” myth—stereotyping that all Asians are hardworking, passive and just simply experts in math. Or, our society has come to a realization that APIs are excelling academically because of hard work and are competent in management and professional jobs. Whatever the reason, let’s start celebrating this epic moment that so many old API generations worked so immensely hard for! Not so fast.
Yes, the unemployment rate for APIs in the country is the lowest. But in a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), Asian American graduates with a bachelor’s degree have higher unemployment rates compared with their white counterparts. Such disadvantages can be overlooked when an overall national statistic says otherwise.
“I am really surprised to hear this,” says Steven Zhang, a recent graduate at the University of Washington. “I have not heard of this trend before.”
Zhang is not alone. Statistics can be deceiving.
When looking at national unemployment rates by education level, a more complex story arises. On the surface, Asian Americans with bachelor’s or advanced degrees are higher than their white counterparts. In the EPI study, the five most populated Asian American states were evaluated: California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Texas. The results show that Asian Americans with a bachelor degree are at 34.9 percent unemployment and Whites at 24.6 percent. For an advanced degree, Asian Americans are at 24.2 percent and Whites at 13.6 percent unemployment.
“It’s been frustrating,” says Zhang. “Not being able to find a job in my degree. As recent grads, we have a mentality that we should be successful.”
Assuming that higher education means lower unemployment rates, then Asian Americans should be at a disadvantage. However, college-educated whites with similar degrees and experience are more likely to get hired. Several theories explain the Asian American-white unemployment disparity:
•Nativity: For some APIs, they are foreign born. Despite having a high education, they may still face language barriers and lack a strong networking system when compared with U.S-born whites. In the report, 79 percent of Asian Americans in the labor force are foreign-born compared to 4 percent in white workers.
•Less education, more stable job: For new Asian immigrants, this population is more willing to accept jobs with lower wages. Often times, hospitality and food service industries are more stable and protected by unions—thus, attracting more Asian immigrants with a less-educated background. Even high school dropouts among Asian Americans are proven to find employment more successfully than whites. The less educated individuals may have strong ties with the Asian ethnic economies allowing them an advantage. But for API individuals with higher degrees, finding employment is challenging.
•The roles of policy-makers: Often times, policy-makers base unemployment disparities on human capital. However, such statistics can be misleading. For example, if a group is more politically and economically dominant, employers are more inclined to hire individuals from the same dominant ethnic group. Hawaii exhibits higher employment rates among Asian Americans because its population is dominant. But everywhere else in the United States, whites complete the general population makeup. Policy-makers will need to address equal opportunities in the workforce.
•The Glass Ceiling: Many companies bypass Asian Americans when it comes to recruiting them for managerial or executive positions. Even with a college degree, they may not even be hired because the API image does not fit into the picture of their future executive or corporate leader.
Similar to the EPI study, the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission has also examined the API community being overrepresented with individuals without a high school diploma and individuals with advanced degrees. At both ends of the spectrum, APIs ultimately become underrepresented in the managerial categories. Asians are less likely to be in high positions despite numbers in the labor force and in high education levels.
“I feel that Asian American recent grads may feel an overall pressure,” says Zhang. “There are the cultural traditions but most importantly, there’s already an expectation for college grads.”
As trends unravel and the disadvantages for Asian Pacific Islander graduates become apparent, more youth will feel an impact. Whether this impact can become a burden on parents because of the strong family and cultural ties within the Asian Pacific Islander community or seeing higher depression and suicide rates because of the expectation to live up to the “model minority” stereotype, the hidden challenges must be addressed. The new waves of API college graduates must overcome yet another hurdle as they gradually wait for the recession to heal. While waiting for the society to change, APIs can become the educators of their community and bring more awareness of the issues that have directly impacted their lives and that of their community.