Young, black and on the job market
Like many African Americans in Prince George’s County, Brandan Pippens’ journey to employment was a struggle
By Marcus Shorter
Brandan Pippens tells his story (Click on link to play audio)
“I think I finally found one,” Brandan Pippens says to his mother, Janice Pippens.
He puts his black cell phone back in his pocket and looks at his mother with a smile. For months, Brandan, 23, like many other college graduates in Prince George’s County, Md., has searched for a job in the area that would allow him to pay the bills, help out around the house and, as he puts it, “feel like an adult, man.”
Brandan stands up from the small kitchen table and looks at his mother.
“That’s good, Brandan,” she says with worried tone.
She raises an eyebrow and folds her arms. She has seen this scenario play out several times since graduation: Brandan needs a job, finds something and then it doesn’t work out. Maybe this time will be different; maybe this time he’ll finally have something he loves to do. Brandan recently decided he wants to go to graduate school, so any extra money will help. He explains the job is for the Census Bureau, one that will have him going door to door and asking survey questions for the Census.
“I know I’m not the most outspoken person, but the pay is great, Mom,” he says.
Brandan, a 2009 graduate of Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md., is not the first Prince George’s County resident to go through this. And he won’t be the last.
Prince George’s County’s unemployment rate is 7.6 percent, a high number especially when compared to the unemployment rates of neighboring counties Charles and Montgomery, 6.4 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively. The state of Maryland’s overall unemployment rate is 7.7 percent.
Due to the county’s current economic situation and record-high unemployment rates, many African American college graduates are going back to school – some to buy some time, others because they want to do everything they can to leap into the workforce. Mary Jones, a federal government employee for more than 30 years, believes that young African Americans are not completely prepared to enter the workforce.
“The young people, specifically the males, that are qualified for jobs should focus on the little things: Social skills, etiquette, resume building, dressing for success and presentation,” Jones says. “There’s already a stereotype they have to face and most employers would rather hire a white man with a crime record than a black man with a college degree.”
Like Brandan Pippens, several young African American residents of Prince George’s County, Md., are dealing with this grim reality and have been confronted with the decisions that go along with it.
Ryan Jones, 24, no relation to Mary, is also a recent college graduate searching for a job, and harboring hopes of continuing his education.
“Absolutely, definitely a super issue,” Ryan said, when asked whether tuition and financial aid play an important role in deciding his future employment and school choices.
A University of Maryland 2009 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, he decided, after months of thinking and planning, that he would pursue law school. According to Ryan, who has been out of work since May, he can get better opportunities with a law degree, but concedes that if the country’s economic situation was better and he had a job, he might not be considering law school.
During school, Jones had what he would describe as “an easy little job,” working at a school gym. This gave him a direct line of communication with the school’s Athletic Director, for whom Jones interned during his senior year. After working for free for a year in hopes of getting a full-time job, Jones left the position once it became clear his extra work was not going to lead to paid employment.
“It got to a point where I had to find something else. I’ve had some contacts with sports agents who need extra help, so right now all I can do is try to work with them and hope for the best,” Ryan says.
Like Pippens, Ryan is just trying to get the extra experience needed to get his foot in the door, even starting a Web site highlighting local sports. He’s keeping his eyes open for new talent, and for established talent that returns to the area, such as NBA star Kevin Durant.
“I knew KD (Kevin Durant) was from around the way and I heard through a couple of people that he works out here during the summer. One day, I decided to go to a couple basketball tournaments in the area and I saw him at one. I introduced myself and did a little interview with him and had someone film it,” Ryan says, with a smirk on his face.
He knows it isn’t much, but feels that if he can show a sports agent that he can foster relationships with players, then he may be one step closer.
Pippens also has tried several ways to land a job, including making Craigslist a part of his daily routine and some days, his only routine. He wants to move out of his parents’ house. “My parents were helping out someone who didn’t have a job and I was feeling like it was time to leave,” Pippens says.
With new homes being built everywhere in Prince George’s county, the cost of living index for 2009 was 116.7 compared to the national average of 100. Apartment buildings are being phased out for townhomes and condominiums. Local businesses are being pushed aside for national chains, and property values are rising across the county. While many, like Pippens, are doing everything they can to leave home, some hesitate to leave the nest.
Alicia Oliver, 24, has no problem staying at home in Prince George’s county until she has enough money and a secure enough job to move out.
“I feel like I shouldn’t rush it if I don’t have to,” says Oliver. “My mother is fine with me staying home because she gets it and I have no problem staying here. I feel like moving out is a status thing and I’m not going to break myself to meet a certain standard.”
Oliver is a contractor at the Department of Homeland Security. While she is happy to be employed, she realizes that being a contractor is not as stable as actual federal employment.
“Right now, I am going through that exact situation, as my organization lost the bid for the contract and as of Nov. 18, the contract ended,” Oliver says.
Her mother, Yvette Oliver, works for Homeland Security as well, but Oliver understands that there is not much her mother can do as far as securing her a job.
“I’m just glad she’s helping out where she can, I can’t ask more than that,” says Oliver.
Oliver is paying a car note, car insurance, a cell phone bill and tuition for her graduate courses at University of Maryland University College, and doesn’t want the extra hassle of paying rent until she is firmly on her feet. Some days she takes the Metro to work although she “can’t stand it.” On days where she gets out of bed late, she drives from her home in Largo, Md., to her job in Crystal City, Va. If she did not live at home, she says, she would not be able to make that choice.
Aside from the immediate monetary benefits, Oliver’s decision to stay at home has helped her career decisions as well.
“When I got out of school, I wanted to go into the medical field and was ready to move to North Carolina because that’s where a lot of the jobs were. Now, being at DHS and being in grad school, I realized I love administration and Human Resources,” Oliver says. “That’s what I want to do, and I’m hoping they can create a position in my office for me and that I can keep working in HR.”
Oliver was not forced to make a decision, and had the luxury of time to shape her future. At times, fate conspired to thwart her attempts at earlier jobs she took “just to get paid.”
“I was applying for jobs that weren’t even in my field (social work) just to get paid,” says Pippens. “Before I took a Census Bureau job, I had a political canvassing job that I thought would be cool. Of course, I got the job and then the blizzards hit, so the job didn’t last long.”
Pippen’s versions of a job “just to get paid” was at the Hoffman AMC 25, a movie theater located in Alexandria, Va. His first day on the job was his last day.
“So, I got the job and I thought it’d be people my age working here. The first day, I’m here for training and the kids are talking about their plans for junior or senior year of high school! I just couldn’t do it, man. I wanted a job to make me feel like an adult and my coworkers are kids younger than my little sister.”
With many local businesses in the area being shut down and much of the workforce earning a living from the federal government, Pippens tried his luck in that sector, even before Craiglistbecame a daily routine.
Dante Esquilin is one Prince George’s County resident who did find employment in the federal government – after a roundabout journey that often led to frustrating dead ends.
Esquilin, a 2009 graduate of North Carolina A&T, graduated with hops of teaching high school history. While he was in college, Esquilin would return home to Prince George’s County, Md., every summer and worked for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
He’d wake up everyday, grab his work badge, put on his shirt, tie, slacks and shoes and head to work on weekdays and have the weekends to himself – all while putting a “good” amount of money in his pocket. However, once he graduated, he knew the federal government job would not be available since he was no longer a student, so he stayed in North Carolina for a while, working at a local UPS for a while to make ends meet.
“I stayed down south for a while but I missed home and when I came home, I went to as many job fairs as I could,” says Esquilin. “At that point, I wasn’t even thinking about teaching.”
In early 2009, after some unsuccessful job fairs, he realized that maybe he should rethink his position on teaching.
“I went to my old high school, Bishop McNamara, and I’m there talking to the teachers and the principal and they say that I should try to get a gig as a substitute teacher. Sounded good to me,” Esquilin says, with a shrug of his shoulders.
After applying through the Prince George’s County school system Web site, Esquilin began substituting for local high schools such as Friendly High School and even managed to get in the system at his high school alma mater, Bishop McNamara High School, a private school in Prince George’s County, Md.
“It was fine for a while, but it wasn’t steady income. If they needed me to work then I worked but if not, I’m home with nothing to do except look for more jobs,” Esquilin says.
Last summer, a door opened, leaning him back to the TSA through the Career Residents Program.
“This lady who worked with my mother told me about this program and I applied and got in. Now, I’m an official federal employee.”
Pippens was not so lucky in finding long-term federal employment but feels that’s for a reason.
“I really wanted to just help people, specifically young kids with disabilities, and doing the government thing isn’t going to put me in that position. But at the time, I just needed the money,” says Pippens. “More than likely, I would have been bored.”
Brandan strokes his chin and begins to discuss the nadir of his job-seeking journey. He stares off into space, and talks about an interview he was granted with an organization in Baltimore, Md. The job would allow him to work with young men and women with learning disabilities, and he felt that his age would make him a good candidate with the job since he could relate.
“I went on the interview and there’s a 40-year-old white guy interviewing as well,” recalls Pippens. “When he stepped out of the office, I could tell he got the job and it was based on the fact that he had the experience.”
While he can laugh at the situation now, at the time, it drove him crazy. He kept hearing that he needed the experience to get a job yet without a job, how could he obtain the experience? The Census Bureau job fell into his lap, but it was not something he really wanted to do, just a pit stop on his journey.
Much like Ryan Jones, he wanted to continue his education and earning an M.A. was not really something he wanted to do, but he knew it was necessary.
“Since my senior year at Salisbury, I was told that without the graduate degree, I wouldn’t get the career I wanted,” says Pippens. “But this Census Bureau job just wasn’t doing it for me. I told my mom I’m not the most outspoken person and I knew that the door-to-door thing would be hard, but it was tougher than I thought, man.”
After the Census Bureau job fell through, Brandan slid back into his normal routine of searching Craigslist for jobs and added The Washington Post’s jobs site as a part of his daily repertoire. One day in March, he stumbled onto a listing that he thought could change things.
“I found an opening at Compass Inc., a social work company in Silver Spring (Maryland). I figured I’d give it a shot,” recalls Pippens. “I applied and a few days later, I got a call from their HR department asking me to come in for an interview. My first thought was, ‘Wow, this is unexpected.’ ”
Pippens was nervous as he went on the interview, especially when he was told he needed to take a test to get the job. But he did not let his nerves get the better of him.
“A few days later, I got another phone call and I was told the job was mine.”
Pippens says his parents were more excited than relieved, because they felt the positive vibes he was giving off. They knew this job would allow him to do what he wanted to do, he says.
“I wanted to work with disadvantaged kids in a residential setting and Compass would allow me to do that. To hear, ‘You’re hired,’ for something I want to do, was definitely a great feeling and a little weird.”
Before the Compass Inc. job came through, Pippens’ routine also consisted of researching university to get the master’s degree he desired. He knew he needed somewhere close, relatively inexpensive and a program that was quick.
“I wanted to be able to start my career at a young age, that was the most important thing,” says Pippens. “I didn’t want to be in school for two years hoping to find a job when I got out because the landscape can change so quickly in that time.”
His research led him to the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus (UMBC). According to Pippens, UMBC is one of the top schools in the country for social work and they offer an Advanced Standing Program that allows students to finish their Graduate program in one year. Also, as Pippens puts it, “in-state tuition is always a plus, man.”
“To apply, I needed to do an essay and get a couple professional references and I figured there was no way I was going to get in, he says. “I didn’t have much professional experience, so where would I get these references from?”
After writing the essay, Pippens contacted his internship supervisor from his senior year at Salisbury..
Also, “I did a lot of theater work, so I decided to focus on the professors I did plays for and one in particular wrote a long letter to UMB,” says Pippens. “He not only recommended me for the school’s Advanced Standing Program, but for the Compass Inc. job”
“It helps to have people like that in your corner. “
When he received the Compass Inc. job, he had not heard from UMBC for weeks.
Then, one day, he came home from a day of running errands, and he opened the mailbox to find a small envelope from UMBC addressed to him. It was less than a week after Compass Inc. had hired him.
“It was a crazy feeling because the envelope was so small, I knew there was no way I was getting in; I figured it was the rejection letter,” Pippens recalls.
To his surprise, not only did Pippens get into UMBC’s Graduate school, but he was accepted into the Advanced Standing Program as well. His parents were proud. Most of all, they were happy that the spark the new job provided would continue to glow with the new focus his master’s program would bring to his life. His parents knew his course was now “solid.”
“It’s crazy now that I think about it, but all of this happened the same week, man,” Pippens says. “Yeah, it had to be the same week. I was on cloud nine already with the job but getting back into school was icing on the cake. It was such a dope feeling. Now I know I have a goal for at least a year.”
Looking back on his journey of the past year, Pippens often thinks about the song, “The Passenger,” by Iggy Pop. It got him through the tough times, he says, because he felt he was doing a lot of traveling, mentally and physically, trying to find his way and find what he actually wanted to do.
Though Pippens isn’t certain what will happen after he graduates with his master’s, he thinks often of the song’s lyrics:
“I am the passenger / And I ride and I ride / I ride through the city’s backsides / I see the stars come out of the sky / Yeah, they’re bright in a hollow sky/ You know it looks so good tonight.”