An especially tough job market for black people, with roughly one in five out of work at the low point, has improved dramatically over the past 12 months.

The unemployment rate among blacks in Minnesota has been cut in half since 2011 and is now even a little lower than pre-recession levels. Estimates of black unemployment fell from 15 percent in October 2013 to 10.8 percent last month, according to census data.

The shift largely reflects a better-than-average state job market that is creating more opportunities for all demographic groups. But it is nonetheless significant in a state where the economic disparity between whites and blacks was the widest in the nation three years ago.

"We're booming all over the state of Minnesota and in the Twin Cities area, so to see that reflected indicates that the conversation that we're having on equity and assets and opportunity may be taking some hold," said Gary Cunningham, president of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association. "Even the corporate community is now saying that this issue of equity and access and opportunity is clearly something that we all need to do."

Sharieka Young, 26, of Plymouth, started a new job at Medica in Minnetonka in August.

She had been working in collections, hassling people to pay their student loans or credit card debt. The paycheck was decent, but she didn't believe in the work and saw no path for advancement. So she quit the job for something new.

Now she helps low-income patients arrange for rides to the doctor's office. The job is fulfilling, she said, and she has enough time to work part-time on a degree in business administration.

"Times are changing and people are starting to be more aggressive about what they want," said Young, who has two children. "Companies are hiring. You can't say you can't get a job because of your race. That's out the window."

Disparity persists

The good news comes with several caveats.

The government's count of the unemployed doesn't include people who have given up hunting for a job, or those working part-time because they can't find a full-time position. Many of Minnesota's roughly 300,000 blacks may be technically employed but still not thriving in the economy.

Also, black unemployment is still triple white unemployment in Minnesota. The disparity in 2013 was second only to Wyoming, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Can we afford for that to remain the case? Because of demographic shifts, the answer is no," said Louis King, president of Summit Academy, a north Minneapolis vocational center.

Economists view the achievement gap as a long-term problem for the state. Minnesota's economy is fueled by the quality of its workforce, and the workforce is quickly becoming more diverse as white baby boomers retire and young blacks and Latinos take their place. A broad cross-section of business and government leaders has identified closing the achievement gap as a problem that needs to be solved.

But in recent years broad improvement in the economy has opened jobs both for whites and blacks. Minnesota had 50,000 full-time openings in July and has added 28,000 new jobs in the past three months.

"When the economy is good, we don't do as bad, but when the economy is bad we do the worst," King said. "The economy is good now."

King sees black workers getting jobs in construction and health care. The Vikings stadium construction project employs 32 percent minorities, he said. Walgreens is hiring people of color as pharmacy techs.

"There's opportunity there," he said. "The health care and drug businesses are booming, and I'm seeing more and more people of color in those jobs."

A shift in the market

Just 24 months ago, finding a job was more difficult. There were fewer full-time openings, the overall unemployment rate was 5.4 percent, and black unemployment was an estimated 18.3 percent.

Tony Parrish, 42, graduated from Dunwoody College in December 2012 and took a job at a nonprofit in north Minneapolis as a case manager for disaster victims. When the nonprofit lost its funding three months later, Parrish lost his job. At first, he wasn't worried.

"I felt like with my skills, with my know-how, I could find a job on my own," he said. "And it just so happened I didn't."

He and his children ended up spending two months in a homeless shelter before he leaned on contacts at Hennepin County and Resource Inc., where he was part of a Young Dads program.

"Resource and the county really helped out big time," he said.

Parrish got a job in August 2013 at Hennepin County, as a human services representative for MNsure. He's now been in the job for 15 months and he said the job market has been improving.

A focus on disparities

Nobody's claiming victory, but the increased focus on closing the achievement gap is changing how workforce agencies do business, said Kelly Matter, president of Resource Inc.

Anyone working in the "workforce development lane" in the Twin Cities would say the same, she said. Resource has programs for the jobless and young fathers that end up serving black clients, and it has recently begun measuring these programs and tracking results more carefully.

"We are making very concerted efforts to play a role and have an impact on reducing Minnesota's deplorable disparity rates," Matter said. "As we connect with DEED, United Way, larger systems-type entities, priorities are on reducing these disparities. I think we're all being intentional about it."

The key to improving the economic fortunes of people of color, says Gary Cunningham, is helping more minorities start businesses of their own. People of color who start businesses are more likely to hire other people of color.

"It's not just about workforce placement or training, it's also about how do we build the entrepreneurship within communities of color," Cunningham said.

The recent drop in black unemployment appears mostly to be because of broader improvement in the economy, and not any particular initiative or policy. The jobless rate is a little lower than it was before the recession, but it's in the same ballpark.

"There was no program or somebody came to the rescue, it was actually market forces working," Cunningham said. "This says that it's in everybody's interest to have a strong economy."

Twitter: @adambelz