It was an eye-opening spring semester for Davidson College students in Sociology 250. As part of the curriculum in the "Inequality in America" class, Assistant Professor Jessica Taft assigned her 15 students to each conduct an extensive interview with one of the 46,000 Charlotte-area people who is unemployed.
After conducting and analyzing all the interviews, students compiled their observations on a public web site. They hope that shedding light on the plight of the unemployed through that site might lead individuals and agencies to greater empathy and help for those without jobs. The site focuses on how unemployed individuals think about their own situation, about employers, about the job search, and about the current state of the local and national economy.
The results were discomforting for students who will soon be entering the job market. "Students were struck by how hard unemployed people were working to find a new job," Taft reported. "Many were well-qualified for work. They attended classes, lined up interviews, networked with colleagues, sent out resumes, and used social networking. Yet they were still unemployed -- many after several years."
Taft solicited unemployed people to participate in the project through social service organizations like the Ada Jenkins Community Center in Davidson and ProNet in Charlotte. She screened the applications, and selected subjects to reflect a broad range of professional backgrounds and class identities. Subjects were not just construction and food service workers, but also unemployed high-level corporate executives. Taft's students ended up interviewing ten men and five women whose average age was 54.
The project gave students practice in qualitative research. They collectively developed interview questions and designed an interview guide. They transcribed their interviews and worked in small groups to identify themes and patterns the interviews revealed.
Kelly Wilson '13 interviewed a former corporate CFO who had been jobless for the past three years. They talked for 3-1/2 hours. Wilson said, "He expressed feelings of frustration, and almost disbelief. He has the skills and has been doing everything right in looking for work, but he is still unemployed. It was powerful to sit face to face and hear about his situation. You don't get that impact from a reading."
She continued, "He talked a lot about the personal side of it, about the strain it put on his relationship with family members, and about how former friends don't know how to interact with him anymore. There's a stigma that comes with unemployment. People treat them like a pariah, and they feel ashamed. I think many people believe you just have to work hard to get a job, and if you don't have a job it means you're not working hard enough. We think we live in meritocracy and will be rewarded for our effort. But it doesn't always pan out that way."
The class turned out to be the favorite ever at Davidson for Rachel Beeton '13, who interviewed a 55-year-old former vice president of an asset management company who was laid off four years ago. He had a master's degree from Columbia University, and used to make $150,000 a year. When Beeton interviewed him, he was living with his parents on food stamps.
Beeton was nervous about the interview, and worried about being sensitive to her subject and his situation. "I had no idea what it was like for unemployed people before I took this class," she said. "He completely deserves a job, and is doing all he can to get one. As a college student headed out into the job market in a year, it scared me."
Beeton said it was an intense, personal learning experience. "I learned that unemployment isn't necessarily the fault of those who are unemployed. It's not like they have a character defect keeping them from getting work. It put things in perspective for me, and reminded me how big the world is, and how much is happening that we're not seeing. It reinforced the reality of inequality, and how far we have to go to address it."
Most of the people interviewed blamed inherent characteristics such as age, race or over-experience for their inability to find work. Many believed that there simply are not enough jobs for the number of people trying to find one. Some said they lacked cultural capital such as an educational degree, social capital such as a network of friends who can help, or enough financial resources to support their job search.
Most did not consider their unemployment to be a result of their own faults. They placed blame on the government, the corruption of corporations, the poor state of the economy, and the digital age.
The interviewees almost universally expressed bitterness about their treatment as they sought work. "They felt disrespected by employers who laid them off, and by employers they encountered in their job search," said Taft. "They felt unacknowledged in terms of their qualifications and efforts. We heard some heartbreaking stories, and a lot of frustration."
Because many feel like politicians and the media treat them as just a number in unemployment reports, they were appreciative of the opportunity to tell their stories to Taft's students.
Student Kelly Wilson said the benefit of the project was raising awareness of the plight of the jobless. "I believe that telling the story of these people can break down the stigma around them. Most people don't want to engage them in conversation, but our report on the internet is a way for people to learn the stories of unemployed people in a safe space. I believe the more you learn about people's situation, the more empathetic a person you can be."
Members of the class hope that their research will inform the public conversation and civic debate about unemployment, and possibly influence policymakers. Student researcher Rachel Beeton said the class made her think about what she can do to address inequality. "I don't think you could come out of that class and not feel motivated to help solve problems," she said.