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Ferguson Unity Weekend Career Fair

Harvey L Collins (left) listens as his son Harvey O Collins, 21, of St. Louis, talks with an employee at the Republic Services booth at the 5th Annual Ferguson Unity Weekend Career Fair on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, at the Ferguson Community Center. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Reducing African American unemployment and integrating more people with past criminal convictions into the workforce could be the best opportunity to grow the St. Louis economy.

That was one of the takeaways from experts presenting St. Louis Community College’s annual State of the St. Louis Workforce report this week. St. Louis has watched for decades as the nation’s population shifts to the West and Sunbelt. With sluggish to flat population growth, the region is unlikely to see a natural acceleration of new workers moving here anytime soon, said Daniel Davis, an assistant vice president and community affairs officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Unemployment in the region is low, about 3.6%. But there are many St. Louisans on the sidelines. African Americans, though, are nearly three times as likely to be unemployed here, and reducing those disparities could be “where St. Louis could see the greatest gains in workers and productivity,” Davis said.

His comments Wednesday introduced the workforce report, which the college has been producing since 2009. This year, the report took a closer look at three populations that may not be feeling the benefits of low unemployment: young black men, those with criminal records, and people with disabilities.

The report, released days before the five-year anniversary of the start of the Ferguson protests that focused the region’s attention on racial disparities in economic opportunity, is another example of how the 2014 civil unrest has shaped the region’s dialogue.

But Wednesday’s focus on marginalized populations was also cast as an opportunity for a slow-growth region.

“We have to grow ourselves,” Alan Spell, research manager of the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s statistics office, told an audience at the community college’s Forest Park campus.

In Missouri, 3.2% of white men were unemployed in 2018, compared to 9.3% of black men — the fourth-highest disparity among of the 29 states that track that data, according to the workforce report.

Davis pointed to numbers showing that the St. Louis region has lower density, suburbanized employment, with about 53,000 jobs per square mile versus about 100,000 per square mile in similar-sized Baltimore.

“When jobs are so spaced out, things like transportation infrastructure become incredibly important,” he said.

A decade ago, the country had 6.4 unemployed workers per job opening. Today, there are more job openings than workers.

There has been progress in offering more opportunities to people with past convictions. Nationwide, the “ban the box” movement — referring to a checkbox in applications that asks about criminal history — has pushed employers to stop automatically disqualifying job applicants for past criminal convictions. Missouri, St. Louis and St. Louis County have all removed past convictions as an automatic disqualification for employment.

Other employers have, too: The State of the St. Louis Workforce report, which surveyed 1,144 companies on hiring plans and employee qualifications, reported that less than 1% of employers said they wouldn’t hire applicants convicted of a felony. In 2015, 26% of respondents said they wouldn’t consider employees who had a felony on their record.

Saint Fults, a director in the St. Louis office of national business and technology consulting firm Slalom, said the company had changed how it screens applicants so past convictions don’t automatically disqualify job applicants.

There’s not a talent deficit in St. Louis, he said. There’s a skills and training deficit, and there are whole populations of workers north of Delmar Boulevard — the divide between mostly black north St. Louis and the whiter south side — “that no one’s talking to,” he said.

“They’re here,” Fults said. “You just have to find them, and they’re very easy to find.”

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Jacob Barker is a business reporter for the Post-Dispatch. 314-340-8291