After earning a degree in information technology at a trade school in his native country of St. Vincent and gaining experience in the IT department of a retail store in New York, Tony Joseph started working as a systems programmer at JP Morgan Chase (then Chemical Bank) in 1981.
“When I went to Chase, my manager was a black Caribbean from Jamaica who was very high up in the ranks, and other blacks were there also,” says Joseph, now 57. “I didn’t see any difficulty [in getting hired]. There were opportunities for blacks.”
But as he has attempted to get back into the finance industry after being laid off from JPMorgan Chase in August 2008, Joseph has found that connections have come to replace experience when it comes to getting a foot in the door at financial firms. He believes he’s now paying a price for his singular focus on work, rather than schmoozing. “When I worked at JP Morgan Chase, my head was down, your head was down, and there was more socializing than networking,” he says. “Now, you really need to network.”
While the finance industry is perceived as an all-white bastion, the reality is somewhat more colorful: More than a third of the employees in the finance and insurance industry in the New York area are minorities, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Blacks are still underrepresented in finance—making up a little more than 11 percent of the industry, well shy of blacks’ 25 percent share of the overall local workforce—but they did share in the industry’s growth during the boom.
Now, during the bust, blacks are sharing in the pain. In a report released last June, the New York State Department of Labor projected that the cumulative number of jobs lost in direct employment in the tri-state region’s financial sectors will peak at 125,000 in 2011, with another 125,000 in lost jobs in related industries like administrative support and professional business services. According to the EEOC, the rate of participation for blacks employed in the finance and insurance industries for New York, Northern New Jersey and Long Island decreased only slightly between 2007 and 2008 (the latest years for which data is available), from 11.72 percent to 11.34 percent.
With the finance sector expected to continue shedding jobs in the coming years, black finance professionals hoping to re-enter what has always been a competitive industry may face especially unique challenges. “It’s a really tough market to get back into, if you’ve been out of the industry for a year, you’re almost redundant,” says Drunia Duvivier, a consultant with O’Rancy Management LLC who is producing a documentary on blacks in the finance industry.
One reason for the limited reach of networks linking blacks to finance jobs might be the scarcity of black executives. In 2008, the participation rate for blacks at the level of executives and senior level officials and managers was a mere 3.3 percent, according to EEOC data. “The higher you go, the harder it is to get access to those networks that don’t involve powerful white men because there are so few of them,” says Karen Ho, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota who interviewed employees from all races at New York’s top financial firms while researching her 2009 book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.
Several diversity trainers, researchers and blacks formerly employed in the financial sector whom City Limits interviewed pointed out that the prospect for increasing black participation will depend more than ever on building networks between blacks in finance and those on the outside wanting in. “Access is being created and more paths are being created … if you know about Wall Street and participate in some of the programs,” says Duvivier, referring to organizations like Sponsors for Educational Opportunities, Management Leadership for Tomorrow and A Better Chance that are designed to increase the number of minorities entering the finance sector.
Tanya M. Odom, a Washington D.C.-based consultant and coach who was worked with financial firms on Wall Street around diversity issues and inclusion initiatives, says those firms have had less to spend on diversity- based recruitment and retention over the past two years. Odom also notes that generational tensions pose challenges. “The millennial generation is the best educated generation in American history,” she says. “If we take the historical, educational, social, and economic barriers faced by many African- Americans, many younger people are coming into firms and often managing others (black and white) who are older and more experienced, but might not have the [same level of] education.”