Robert McCartney: Here’s my idea for philanthropist to help poor find jobs

Robert McCartney
Columnist October 22, 2011

here’s my idea for how local philanthropist Bill Conway should give away $1 billion to help the poor: Forget about the original idea of creating jobs. Our region’s economy will take care of that (eventually).

Instead, break the cycle of poverty for thousands of area families by helping the long-term unemployed learn to read and acquire other basic vocational skills. Then they’ll be able to find and keep jobs for which they’ve been unsuitable even in boom times.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

A number of local nonprofit organizations have proven track records of teaching and training the poor as well as placing them in jobs. But the groups are short of resources, and they can’t expand even as demand is rising.

That’s where Conway could make a difference. He should back those groups. Some help hundreds of people a year on annual budgets of about $1 million. The McLean philanthropist wants to spend a thousand times as much. Arithmetic suggests that the impact would be huge.

As loyal readers know, the public has swamped Conway with suggestions on how to help the poor since my column a month ago in which he invited people to submit ideas. Conway, his wife and an assistant have been studying more than 2,000 e-mails that he’s received.

Conway has begun to respond, expressing interest in some writers’ proposals and telling others “No, thanks.” (He’s got enough and doesn’t want any more.)

Some readers didn’t quite get the message that Conway is looking for more than a one-time fix. He wants his dough to make a lasting difference.

“A lot of people just wanted personal help: ‘My mother’s sick, can you help me?’ ” said Conway, 62, who co-founded the mega-successful, District-based Carlyle Group investment firm.

“I feel bad for those people, but that’s not what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Conway was especially interested in creating jobs for the poor. So I started out trying to dream up socially useful businesses that would employ poor people. Fix up abandoned homes and sell them at a profit? Grow vegetables on empty lots and open urban-farm markets?

But I turned it upside down after interviewing executives of nonprofit groups with decades of hands-on experience helping poor people get jobs.

The sorry fact, they said, is that a sizable number of people in our region — at least 50,000 in the District — are so poorly educated that they’re effectively unemployable.

Many read or write at an elementary school level. Others have high school degrees but need extra training to get a work certificate or two-year college degree to succeed in the increasingly competitive labor market.

Large numbers, especially young adults, need help with “soft skills” required in the workplace: how to show up on time, arrange for transportation and child care, and get along with co-workers.

The problem replicates itself, as poor education and work skills tend to pass from one generation to the next.

“For the people that Conway’s talking about, the long-term unemployed, generally there’s a literacy issue, a basic-skills issue,” said Lecester Johnson, executive director of Academy of Hope, an adult education program based in Northeast.

Also, although it might be hard to believe given the current slow economy, our region’s long-term challenge is not generating new jobs. Forecasts say the area will produce plenty of positions if you look ahead a few years.

Conway’s money can help ensure that those jobs go to people who already live here but have been outside the workforce, rather than to people who’d move here from elsewhere.

He could start with Academy of Hope, which is looking to expand its programs that help adults get a high school equivalency degree. Its current annual budget is $1.3 million. Last year, 750 people were taking its classes, up from 400 in 2007.

“We could easily serve 1,000 people at a time if we had the space,” Johnson said. It joined six other workforce development groups in submitting a proposal to Conway to fund a building they could share to serve 2,500 to 5,000 residents a year.

Another organization with a solid record is the Center for Employment Training at SOME (So Others Might Eat) in Anacostia. It prepares about 120 people a year for jobs in medical offices, business and customer service, and building maintenance.

Director Emily Price said the center typically places 70 to 80 percent of participants in jobs paying an average of $11.52 an hour. The center’s annual budget is about $800,000, but it could serve more people if it had more money. It’s preparing a proposal for Conway.

Conway is aware that no one idea is going to be enough. After looking at the public’s suggestions and hearing some of the same recommendations that I did, he said, “There is no silver bullet here. There’s no, ‘If you write a big check, good jobs will suddenly be created.’ ”

Nonetheless, a billion dollars would pay for a lot of basic education and work skills. That would translate into jobs that would change lives in the long run, just as the philanthropist wants.

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