Shortage of Skilled Workers Hurting D.C., Report Finds

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Long before the economy soured into the worst financial and unemployment crisis in a generation, D.C. officials knew that tens of thousands of residents did not have the training to compete for mid-skill jobs in construction, maintenance and other professions that pay a livable wage.

The problem has hurt the city for years. The government struggled to find qualified residents to work on multimillion-dollar construction projects it funded, such as Nationals Park and the convention center.

The lack of skilled residents will cost the city in the coming months, when the government and nonprofit groups will compete with hundreds of other municipalities for a share of the $500 million in grants to train workers for the emerging "green" economy. To qualify for the stimulus funds, municipalities must demonstrate that they can train adults fast and put them to work on shovel-ready projects.

"I think the stipulation around the stimulus money and green jobs is that you have to be project ready, and money needs to be expended within a 24-month period," said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "If we have to go create a program and get people prepared, then chances are we won't be able to go after that money."

D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) put it more bluntly. "The city has failed to make adult job training a priority," he said.

Brown, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, has pushed the city for years to establish night and weekend job training programs in public schools, and recently submitted legislation calling on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to establish programs for adults at schools such as Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School.

"This should have been done eight years ago," Brown said.

A Fenty administration official brushed off the criticism. Joseph P. Walsh Jr., who heads the D.C. Department of Employment Services, said he is not worried. "We are going to be very poised to compete," Walsh said. "We've been planning for months."

Residents are being trained to take green jobs as part of a long-standing city program to weatherize homes, Walsh said. According to the department's Web site, the city offers job training through a few for-profit providers such as Rize Up and Quality First Training Center, as well as schools such as Southeastern and Strayer universities, the University of the District of Columbia and others.

In recent days, the department received $9.6 million for green job training as part of the federal stimulus package, a spokeswoman said.

"I don't think it's fair to suggest that the District is lagging behind other cities," Walsh said. When the competition for the $500 million in stimulus money begins later this year, "we will already have demonstrated what we can do . . . and we'll be able to go in and make a case for those dollars."

But last summer, a report released by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program noted that about a third of jobs in the city are available to workers with a postsecondary degree. "Yet too often, District residents do not meet this threshold," it said.

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