RALEIGH, N.C. — Until this summer, Loc Tran, 59, was a technician at Nortel, a global communications company that has facilities at Research Triangle Park here. Then she left and opened Pho' Cali, a Vietnamese restaurant.
When her brother lost his job at another local electronics company, he didn't become unemployed. He joined the family business. "My brother works here now," Tran says.
The recession has been brutal for just about every segment of the population, but though the unemployment rate for Asian Americans has been inching upward, it has been far lower than the rates for whites, blacks, Hispanics or the nation as a whole. Among those groups, Asian Americans have had the lowest jobless rate every month since 2000, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking monthly unemployment among Asians.
The unemployment gap — 7.5% for Asians in October, compared with 10.2% nationwide — stems from a combination of education benchmarks and cultural traditions that foster family support when someone is out of work, researchers say.
"Asians in the United States, both native born Asians and Asian immigrants, have higher educational levels than other groups," says Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.
A recent Labor Department report on the work force shows a greater proportion of Asians than other racial or ethnic groups in management, professional and related occupations — jobs that require more schooling and are high-paying. About 47% work in management or professional jobs compared with 35% for the U.S. work force as a whole.
Asians account for 5% of U.S. workers but make up a disproportionate share of computer software engineers (29%), computer programmers (20%), computer scientists and system analysts (16%).
"The character of this recession and how it's affected groups by educational attainment shows that information technology has done better, health care has done better," Berube says.
Asians also are "tied in by a social network, a family network," says Paul Ong, a professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA. "Rather than lay people off, you will find them spread the work out and there is lots of use of family labor."
Work ethics and close family ties certainly are not unique to Asians. But when coupled with high educational levels, those characteristics contribute to a lower unemployment rate. Hispanics, for example, demonstrate similar work and family values but their population as a whole is not as educated as Asians.
Cultural and family ties are strong in immigrant-dominated communities and are powerful when combined with income and education, says Robert Lang, sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
"Despite their upward mobility, Asians are still a minority group and thus more closely connected to one another than a native-born Caucasian American," he says. "You're much more on your own if you're a middle-income, native-born white American, especially in a big city."
Seema Agnani, executive director of Chhaya, a community organization in Jackson Heights, a South Asian neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., cautions that unemployment rates can be deceptively low because some immigrants work for cash and are not officially on a payroll.
"A lot of the folks who have lost income are not going to necessarily claim unemployment typically because they weren't working on the books in the first place," she says.
A combination of factors
The demographics of Asian Americans — from high educational levels to extended family networks — and complex cultural nuances help create the disparity in jobless rates:
• More educated. About 30% of Asians 25 and older have a bachelor's degree and almost 20% have a graduate degree, compared with 17% and 10% for the nation overall. All other groups have a smaller share of college graduates: 18% of whites have a bachelor's degree and 11% a more advanced degree; 12% and 6% of blacks; 9% and 4% of Hispanics.
• Larger households. The median income for Asian households is higher — $68,400 vs. $52,175 for all groups — but Asians have larger households, with more workers, Ong says. "If we look at per capita income rather than household income, it's another story."
In the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside area, for example, median household income is more than $65,000 a year for Asians, exceeding that of non-Hispanic whites by more than $10,000, the Census Bureau reports. Per capita income for Asians in this community, however, is lower than for whites.
• Family ties and small businesses. Hans Huang, 36, was a partner in a Raleigh law firm until it merged with another company. They parted ways. He started his own consulting firm and opened two restaurants — the hip 101 Lounge + Café and the Moonlight Pizza Company in downtown Raleigh.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Huang says investments his parents made also are in his and his sister's name — typical of the cohesion and financial support within many Asian families.
"There is a propensity for active networking with the community and family," says Hai Ly Burk, who came to the USA as a refugee from Vietnam at age 3. She is a social worker at Duke Raleigh Hospital and president of the local chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals.
That sometimes can be more easily done in small, family-owned businesses than large corporations. Whites and Asians — and especially Asian immigrants — are more likely to be self-employed than other groups, the Labor Department says.
• Less risky jobs. Many Asians gravitate toward jobs that carry greater job security. A large number of Filipinos, for example, work as nurses, teachers and postal employees. "They are risk-averse ... and tend to stay longer (in the same jobs) so they have seniority," Ong says.
Health care is one of only two economic sectors to grow in the recession. The other is education.
Many Asians are doctors, nurses or technicians. Since the start of the recession, health care has added 597,000 jobs.
"Asian Americans are far more into the area of science technology and business in the corporate financial banking sector," says Larry Shinagawa, director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland. "They are ensconced in government and education, though a significant portion are in small business."
• Unemployment is frowned upon. There is a cultural resistance among Asians to being idle and collecting money for not working, Shinagawa says.
"Better to be underemployed than unemployed," he says. "They're working in jobs where they're overly qualified and that has a lot to do with small business and a family network where they can support one another."
Working-class Asians, especially immigrants, are likely to accept any job to earn money, says C.N. Le, director of Asian & Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts.
"That's all it is for them, as opposed to a lot of Americans who see their jobs as a reflection of their own identity and self-esteem," says Le, creator of asian-nation.org, a website that focuses on Asian Americans.
Difficulties for some
National numbers mask the struggles of low-income Asian immigrants, many of them refugees such as the large Hmong community in Minnesota. Many in those communities aren't well-educated and don't speak English well.
Unemployment claims filed by Southeast Asians in Minnesota jumped 150% from 2007 to 2009, says Lisa Hasegawa, executive director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development.
Meanwhile, Chinatowns and Little Saigons in several cities are hurting because people are cutting back on restaurant spending, Shinagawa says, and small family businesses are being pushed out by big chains.
"Look at dry cleaners," he says. "The Zip Cleaners (a chain) are taking over. In the past, bigger chain stores would never go into inner-city neighborhoods." Now, "there is a recognition that people of color are a significant portion of the economy."
A region of opportunity
Here in the Research Triangle, a region anchored by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, top-tier universities, high-tech companies and research centers have attracted Asian professionals.
Asians' unemployment rate here is even lower than their national rate, averaging just above 3% in the past year in Wake County, home of Raleigh. It was above 4% for non-Hispanic whites, almost 8% for blacks and above 5% for Hispanics, according to the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina.
Many highly educated Asians here have been recruited by companies and universities and granted special visas because of their expertise. If they're here, they have work. When the jobs disappear, they return home and never appear on U.S. unemployment rolls.
"With their American experience, they can leverage that and start their own company" back home, says Hector Javier, a native of Manila in the Philippines and a consultant in technology operations at Cisco Systems in the Research Triangle. "The first generation is going back."
Not everyone is prospering. Cyndy Yu-Robinson, 43, was a public affairs officer for the Environmental Protection Agency in Durham. She wanted to go into the private sector and took a job as manager of corporate responsibility for computer maker Lenovo in March 2008. This year, Lenovo started cutting jobs, including hers.
"At first, it was disbelief. It couldn't be happening to me," says Yu-Robinson, a mother of two. "I chose to go on unemployment because I want to take advantage of resources available to me to find the right job."
She's active in Asian-American organizations and admits that hearing Asians' attitudes toward unemployment stings a bit. "If I didn't care about the kind of career, I would've taken any job," Yu-Robinson says. "I don't want to just go back to government."
While she lines up job interviews, she teaches up to eight karate classes a week at Triangle's Best Karate, the studio she owns with her husband.
Asad Abbasi, 54, came to the USA from Pakistan in 1973 and had never been without a job. He has a master's degree in engineering and was working for mobile phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson. When the tech bubble burst in 2002, he was laid off.
"In my life, just once," Abbasi says. "I never went back. The heck with corporate America."
He opened Baba Ghannouj restaurant in Cary, a Raleigh suburb, turning his cooking hobby into a job. He creates recipes, shops at the farmer's market and gets to know his customers. "It's less money, a lot of work but less torture," Abbasi says.