Friday, June 8, 2012

Davidson Students Create Web Site to Shed Light on Plight of the Unemployed

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. Visit:

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

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

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 placedblame 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.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for
1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C.
Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has
graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of
the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson
Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the
nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages,
giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson
competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding
Honor Code is central to student life at the college.