Part of the problem, economists say, is that there is an imbalance between the kinds of jobs being created by the District's economic growth and the skills held by the city's unemployed, who disproportionately have only entry-level skills and no education beyond high school.
The new office buildings being built downtown generally house jobs for lawyers, consultants and others with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, people involved in marketing the District to employers say, companies put the kinds of facilities that hire large numbers of entry-level workers, such as distribution facilities and call centers, in rural places with cheaper real estate and lower prevailing wages.
Map Percentage of residents unemployed in 2000
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A study commissioned by the Department of Employment Services last year forecast that 32 percent of the jobs that would be created in the District from 2000 to 2010 would require no formal education beyond high school, compared with a forecast of 57 percent nationally.
But an absence of jobs for entry-level workers does not completely explain Washington's employment problem, say economists and people who work with the unemployed. "A lack of jobs really just isn't the problem we face," said Monica C. Simpkins, vice president for training and employment services at Goodwill of Greater Washington, which prepares disadvantaged job-seekers to join the workforce.
There are signs that the problem goes well beyond employers discriminating against the overwhelmingly black residents of some D.C. neighborhoods. Nationally, blacks have a higher rate of joblessness than people of other races, 12 percent in July compared with 5.7 percent across the nation as a whole. Experts attribute some of that to racism. But many overwhelmingly African American neighborhoods in the District have unemployment rates many times that for blacks nationwide.
The more substantial problem, Simpkins and others who work with the unemployed said, is an entrenched culture in a few District neighborhoods that has changed little in recent years. Children grow up with friends, family and neighbors who don't work, and thus they never learn how to apply for a job or plot a career. They attend troubled public schools where they do not learn the basics. And by the time they are adults, the routine of waking up early and showing up at a job is foreign to them.
This problem is exacerbated, say some people who have studied the region's economic shifts, by the fact that residents of troubled D.C. neighborhoods who find successful careers and might set examples for others often move to Prince George's County or other suburbs in search of an affordable house and better public schools. "There's some self-selection occurring," said Alice M. Rivlin, director of the Greater Washington Research Program at the Brookings Institution, explaining why joblessness is lower in Prince George's than the District.
"There are all of these contributing factors," said Harry J. Holzer, a Georgetown University public policy professor and Urban Institute researcher who studies low-wage labor markets. "It's a mix of not having the right skills, physical distance from the jobs, having weak networks in place to know what jobs are out there."
John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25, said that during the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when hotels could not hire enough workers, he went with several hotel managers to Benning Terrace in Southeast to recruit.
It was a rainy night, he said, but 160 people lined up looking for jobs. "As I talked to people, it was clear that a lot of these were people who genuinely wanted to work and were interested enough to wait out in the rain just to put in an application." he said. "But a lot of them just had no idea how to apply for a job or where to go. There's people who genuinely want to improve themselves but have no friggin' clue how to do it."