01/21/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Unemployment: Crisis Meets Opportunity

You don't need me to tell you that unemployment is still a huge problem. The unemployment rate, including long-term unemployment, is still way too high, and Congress keeps deadlocking over small but urgently needed measures like extending unemployment benefits for those struggling to find work.

For young Latino and African American men, it's even worse. Nationally, Latino men age 20 to 24 have an 11.5 percent unemployment rate, while for young African American men, the rate is more than 20 percent. Even as we hear of gradual recovery from the recession, that last figure is very close to Great Depression levels of unemployment.

In that depressing landscape, let me offer a small glimmer of hope. There is a real opportunity to do something about the crisis of unemployment and underemployment among these young men of color, but it won't happen by itself. We'll need to take action.

One sector of our economy that is growing rapidly and will continue to grow over the next decade is health care. Between health care reform giving more people access to care and a growing, aging population, we are going to need a lot more health care workers -- as many as 5 million between 2012 and 2022, nearly one-third of the total projected increase in jobs, according to government projections.

When we think of health care, we first think of doctors and nurses, but a huge amount of growth will be in what are called "allied health professions" -- folks like radiology technicians and therapy assistants. These are good jobs, often paying $35,000 or more a year, that generally don't require a college degree.

And it's critical that this expanding health care workforce be diverse. As millions of Americans who haven't had access to care come into the system, we'll need people who can meet them where they are in terms of culture, language and background. The medical system can be daunting, and many people are just more comfortable dealing with providers who look and sound like them. That means better communication and, ultimately, better care.

Right now, the health workforce is pretty diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, but not in terms of gender, where females overwhelmingly predominate.

Bingo: Crisis meets opportunity. If we can educate and train boys and men of color to fill these new positions, we'll be doing good for patients, for the health care system overall, and for the communities still plagued by high unemployment.

But, as my colleagues Jordan Medina and Carla Saporta discovered in researching their just-released report, "Pathways Out of Poverty: Boys and Men of Color and Jobs in the Health Sector," there are serious obstacles in the way. While Jordan and Carla mainly focused on California, most of what they found is relevant across the U.S.

Today, multiple barriers stand between boys and men of color and these health services jobs. Among these are cultural attitudes (for example, the stereotypical assumption that caregiving professions are feminine), lack of investment in primary and secondary education, lack of specific curriculum to help young males prepare for health sector careers, and our dysfunctional justice system.

To address that last one first, study after study has found that our justice system comes down disproportionately hard on young African Americans and Latinos. One recent study found that half of all black males have been arrested by age 23. Sadly, this often has little or nothing to do with rates of committing crimes. To pick one easy example, African Americans use marijuana at just about the same rate as whites, but are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for doing so.

What does that have to do with health sector jobs? In many places, blanket background check requirements bar hundreds of thousands from these careers, even when their crime was minor, nonviolent, or very long ago. But there's a solution at hand: States should align their laws and regulations with federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommendations, which call for this information to be assessed individually rather than being a blanket barrier to employment. We don't need to destroy the futures of thousands who simply made a mistake in order to protect against the few who actually pose a risk.

But before a young man can apply for a job, he first must obtain the education and training needed to qualify. Around the U.S. we've seen cuts in school funding. A few states, including California, have begun to reverse that trend, but it's not nearly enough.

And to get boys and men of color connected to careers they might not have considered, we need programs that show them the potential of these jobs and that make them interesting and exciting. Here and there you can find excellent examples of school "linked learning" programs that do just that. For example, the Health Tech Academy at Valley High School in Sacramento comprehensively connects students to health careers with a mix of health clinic visits, networking opportunities, and health sciences classes.

Schools need to create more such programs, and -- this is crucial -- the health care industry needs to support them.

We face a true crisis of unemployment and underemployment among young men of color. There's a pathway out of that crisis if we choose to take it. Will we?