In Stadium Contract, a Prototype for Job Creation

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 20, 2007

When Gelberg Signs, a manufacturing company tucked away in one of the District's few industrial zones, won a $1 million contract to make all 3,000 signs for the Washington Nationals' new stadium, the owners knew they would be expected to hire more city residents.

But "we'd interview 60 people from an ex-offenders program and it was a struggle to find two who might work out," says Guy Brami, who owns the business with brothers Luc and Neil. "We'd ask, 'Is there a problem getting here at 6:30 in the morning every day?' And they'd say, 'Yes!' "

Luckily, when Brami put out word that he needed to staff up, he heard from the Artisans training program at Covenant House, a Catholic charity in Northeast that focuses on homeless young people.

Working from a small woodshop just off Kenilworth Avenue NE, Artisans takes kids with no marketable skills and puts them through a six-month course that is ostensibly about carpentry but is really a boot camp that injects troubled young people with dependability, courtesy and a strong work ethic.

When I wrote about the Artisans program two years ago, I was taken by its success in turning tough, sullen street kids into true believers in the redemption that comes with hard work. But most of the graduates I met didn't yet have real jobs. Now, many do, including five hired by the Bramis to make signs for retailers such as Roy Rogers and Mattress Discounters, and for Nationals Park.

"I wouldn't have believed it, but we're five for five, and now I'm back asking Artisans for more kids," Guy Brami says. "These kids are hungry for a job. We're happy to teach them the skills, but we need them to be responsible and reliable, and the Artisans program taught them that."

Some barriers to the District's viability aren't likely to change: The city cannot tax federal property and cannot tax commuters' incomes.

But some obstacles to financial health are movable objects: The city's schools don't prepare kids for the jobs this region produces, and -- flip that coin -- there aren't nearly enough jobs suitable for Washington's existing workforce, one-third of which is functionally illiterate.

The Brami brothers watched with growing anxiety as their competitors moved to the suburbs. But thanks to the extraordinary development boom in the city, an innovative effort to train addicts and ex-offenders for the workforce and the revival of major league baseball in Washington, the brothers now see their company flourishing in a way that brings big rewards to the city and its residents.

Steven Jones, one of the new Gelberg employees, says that where he grew up in Prince George's County, many young people "just don't have the motivation to do a job. After living with no responsibilities, you get kind of lazy. You get used to sleeping late and just not doing anything."

After six months in the Artisans program, "getting that motivation and just being around the right kind of people, people who actually want to do something, I was ready to work," says Jones, 23.

"Before Artisans, I was just too lazy for a job," says Brandon Robbins, 20. "At Covenant House, they don't just teach you how to do the work, they teach the basics of coming to work on time." Now, he says, "my friends see this and they want to go out and get jobs."

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