Gray launches citywide jobs initiative

September 8, 2011

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray kicked off a citywide initiative Thursday that marks a more aggressive approach to matching the city’s 35,000 jobless residents with potential employers.

One City, One Hire is modeled after Hire One Atlanta, a program that attracted attention this year when 5,000 unemployed people in the Georgia city were matched with local companies in the first six weeks.

Gray (D), who promised to tackle the District’s nearly 11 percent unemployment rate during his mayoral campaign last year, said the jobless rate is more than double the citywide rate in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. “There isn’t a day that I don’t go into Ward 8 and people say, ‘Mr. Gray, Mr. Gray, Mr. Gray, I need a job. I need a job. I need a job,’ ” he said at a news conference at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

“The solution lies among all of us, especially in a public-private partnership,” Gray said.

Gray was flanked by representatives of local businesses, particularly from the hotel industry. Fifteen businesses have signed up for the program, which aims to hire 10,000 unemployed residents in the next year.

Lisa Mallory, director of the Department of Employment Services, said the District will offer more incentives than does Atlanta’s program, including tax credits, wage subsidies and money for on-the-job training to participating employers.

Among the managers who have signed on is Thomas Penny, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott Washington Convention Center. Penny brought two recent hires from the District, one a former gang member who is a junior at American University.

Penny said he planned to hire more in part because of the city’s tax incentives, particularly the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which offers as much as 2,400 for each new hire. The credit, Penny said, made hiring “much more attractive at a time that businesses are having to manage their costs very tightly.”

Kathleen W. Carr, the Washington president of McLean-based Cardinal Bank, said she had just learned about the program but planned to participate. “We have such a critical issue [in this city]. You go out to Ward 8 and you go ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

Carr, who began her career as a teller at National Bank of Washington in 1973, said that automation had reduced the number of entry-level positions in banking but that she still needed filing clerks, tellers and greeters. “My bank is as healthy as the community it’s in,” she said.

There are about 50,000 licensed businesses in the District, according to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Participating groups and businesses in the program include Comcast, Georgetown University, George Washington University, the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., and the chamber of commerce.

The chamber has more than 1,700 members, and chief executive Barbara Lang said she hoped those employers could collectively hire 1,000 D.C. residents through the program. “This is the kind of commitment from the D.C. business community that will put our D.C. economy back on track,” she said.

Mallory said one of the first steps is “combating the notion that there’s a skills gap.” The District’s unemployment rate is often attributed to chronic social ills, including illiteracy.

But Mallory said her agency’s database counts 51,000 available jobs, and many of them do not require higher education.

In an interview, Mallory said her agency unfortunately has a reputation for being ineffective. “That’s the same thing they say about our D.C. residents,” she said. “People are being hired, but they don’t live in D.C.”

The Employment Services database has 10,000 unemployed residents who have sought help through the department. About half of them have bachelor’s degrees, she said.

Mallory said the department has to convince local businesses that the agency is able to help them find District residents who have the necessary skills.

“In the past, they wouldn’t even look at us. They’re using a recruiter or Monster,” she said, referring to the Monster.com employment Web site. “Use us.”

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