Atiya Cheatham woke up two hours earlier than usual, murmured her daily prayers, brushed and curled her long ebony hair and put on her best interview outfit, a cream-colored, three-quarter-sleeved blouse and khaki slacks.
Then she headed from her home in the Wyckoff Gardens housing project in Brooklyn to join some of the 26,000 young men and women hoping to land one of the 2,000 jobs as ushers, ticket sellers and food and drink vendors that will become available at the Barclays Center arena near Downtown Brooklyn that is to open in September. The arena job is one of 10 she has applied for since May.
“It is frustrating,” Cheatham, a 22-year-old graduate of a community college in upstate New York, said of her job search, as she waited inside a gymnasium at St Francis College to find out whether she had survived the first round of prescreening. “They say you need a college degree, but now that I have a degree it’s still hard,” she said. “But I have faith something will come my way.”
Given the number of job seekers who will be streaming through over the next few weeks, the arena job fair was strikingly orderly and fast-paced, and the atmosphere was one of anxious but hopeful longing. Still, the sheer number seeking these generally part-time and low-paying (though union-scale) jobs was a powerful illustration of just how bleak the city’s job picture is, especially for black New Yorkers. A recent analysis of employment data for the federal Labor Department found that half of the city’s African-Americans had no jobs this year.
At least four out of five of the arena’s job applicants were black.
Forest City Ratner, the arena’s developer, along with its two operators, have tried to concentrate recruitment in Brooklyn, placing hundreds of postcards under apartment doors in housing projects, and sending executives like Ashley C. Cotton, a Forest City vice-president, to speak at churches. Forest City has enlisted the city’s Department of Small Business Services, which provides free recruitment services, to handle the prescreening, along with its subcontractor, Workforce One.
Hundreds of young men and women started lining up Wednesday morning for appointments they had scheduled online, standing quietly and earnestly outside the college. They were dressed in well-pressed white shirts and blouses; some of the men wore suits and ties and had polished their shoes to a shine. Since many of the jobs require public interaction, a high premium has been placed on attitude and personality — Forest City has even consulted with the Disney Institute about spotting the essential qualities — and the applicants were displaying their most personable sides even before they passed through St Francis’ doors.
Applicants were divided into two dozen groups, based on the jobs they were seeking, and peppered with questions to determine how well they would work with different kinds of crowds — fans of the Brooklyn Nets, rock concertgoers, or perhaps families at a circus.
“You just have to adjust your mindset to different things,” said Rayshawn Martinez, 21, from Bedford-Stuyvesant. “If you know you’re going to do a circus, you just have to adjust your mindset to families.”
Martinez has survived in recent years by taking periodic off-the-books jobs and getting help from his mother and his girlfriend.
“Everybody’s getting laid off from jobs, and you have other people who have higher credentials, so it’s going to be hard for a black guy with a GED to go against someone with a bachelors degree,” he said.
The half-dozen people in Samantha Logan’s group of applicants for an usher’s job were asked what they would do if they spotted a woman entering the arena with an anxious look.
“I would ask does she need any help, look at her ticket and assist her to her seat,” said Logan, a perky 23-year-old who lives with her mother and her sister in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
There was something about her upbeat replies that charmed the recruiters, because Logan was asked to return for an interview on July 11. Logan, who did not complete her studies at Sheepshead Bay High School but received her general equivalency diploma in 2010, has worked in child care at summer camps; she learned about the job fair by going to the arena construction site and asking the workers whether there would be any jobs available.
“I’m good at greeting others, putting a smile on other people’s faces,” Logan said, in a manner so disarming it did not seem like a boast. “I make people feel like they can do it.”
Still, she, too, has spent an exasperating four months searching for work, and said the mood among the young job seekers in her neighborhood was “kind of dreary”