In D.C., More Jobs and More Jobless
District Unemployment Surges Past 10% Despite Expanding Government

By V. Dion Haynes and Emma L. Carew
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 20, 2009

The District's unemployment rate surpassed 10 percent last month, the highest level since September 1983, even though the city is among the few in the country where jobs are being created.

Unemployment also rose in Maryland and Virginia, though not as much as in the District, whose jobless rate went from 9.9 percent in April to 10.7 percent in May. D.C. rate surpasses the national average, 9.4 percent, and is in the company of other urban areas such as Los Angeles (11.6 percent), Chicago (10.5 percent) and Miami (9.8 percent).

Although the Washington area is widely considered relatively immune to fluctuations in the job market because of steady federal government employment, much of that benefit is felt in the two neighboring states, which both had 6.8 percent unemployment in April, rising in May to 7.2 percent in Maryland and 7.1 percent in Virginia.

D.C. "is a city like many central cities with a substantial low-income population with low skills," said Alice Rivlin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served as chairman of the District's financial control board when the city was going through a financial crisis in the 1990s. "We have plenty of jobs, but mostly high-skill jobs that require education beyond high school."

City residents often are unable to compete for the best jobs and are more likely to be in the lower-skill positions in construction and retail that have been most vulnerable to cutbacks. The higher-paid, higher-skill jobs being created in the federal government and contracting firms more often go to people residing outside the city. About two-thirds of people working in the District live in Maryland or Virginia, D.C. officials said.

Job losses have occurred across the board in white- and blue-collar professions, but they have disproportionately affected African Americans rather than whites, and holders of only high school diplomas more so than college graduates.

For instance, the U.S. unemployment rate among blacks is 14.9 percent, compared with 8.6 percent for whites. Those who have not graduated from high school have a 15 percent unemployment rate, compared with 4.8 percent for college graduates.

In the District, the gap can be seen ward by ward. In April, in the largely affluent and white Ward 3, the unemployment rate was 2.5 percent, according to the Brookings Institution. In the predominately poor and black Ward 8, the rate was 23.3 percent.

Lee Peterson, 53, of Anacostia, in Southeast D.C., said he has been looking for work since he lost his food-service job six months ago. Peterson, who has a high school diploma, said he often finds that he's not qualified for many of the jobs he seeks.

"I feel disappointed," he said, "because I want to be able to get hired." Peterson said he has been taking classes at night to brush up his skills and has two interviews lined up for next week. "It makes me feel more confident that I might get hired," he said.

In May, the District gained about 1,400 jobs, mainly in the federal government.

"I do see a desire of some employers who'd like to see people from the District get jobs for their District locations," said Paul Villella, chief executive of the Reston-based recruiting firm HireStrategy, who often gets requests from D.C.-based accounting and information technology firms to find local residents.

"These professional jobs require a bachelor's degree or higher and a certain amount of experience," he added. "Many District [applicants] don't have the educational background and don't have the experience."

In Maryland, 2,500 jobs were created in May, in sectors such as leisure and hospitality and professional business services, said Eric M. Seleznow, executive director of the Maryland Governor's Workforce Investment Board. But at the same time, the ranks of the unemployed grew by 11,817. "Our mission continues to be to get people retooled and retrained and get people back to work as soon as possible," Seleznow said.

William F. Mezger, chief economist at the Virginia Employment Commission, said the growth in the state's jobless rate reflects the loss of manufacturing jobs, including numerous ones at automotive component firms.

He said unemployment traditionally is lowest in April because of hiring by retailers to handle tourism traffic during spring break. The rate usually rises in May because of college students who have graduated or completed their academic year flooding into the labor market.

Students "getting out of college in a not-so-good labor market are adding to unemployment," Mezger said. "You have some students coming to Northern Virginia looking for work. That will be a factor."

Not long ago in the District, construction, as manufacturing had in an earlier era elsewhere, served as a gateway to the middle class for workers with only a high school diploma, experts said. Moreover, companies were more willing to hire underqualified candidates and train them for administrative positions.

Today, construction workers who have lost work have to seek retraining or wait until stimulus projects begin, Villella said. And many companies are laying off clerical staff.

The District's large underclass has been another impediment, city officials said. About 36 percent of D.C. adults function at the most basic level of literacy, according to the State Education Agency. And at least 2,500 people a year return to the District after incarceration, said D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Herbert Martin, 43, of Anacostia, recently lost his construction job and is looking for work. The father of eight said his criminal background has not made his search easy. "I need to have a job," Martin said. "I'm not going back into the streets."

Martin said he participates in a group for previously incarcerated men, Men in Motion, and has just enrolled in Project Empowerment, where he'll attend classes and learn job skills. Both projects are "keeping me focused, keeping me motivated," Martin said of his job search. "I'm making it happen."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company