D.C. regional task force tackling minority unemployment problem

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A12

A task force of local elected officials across the Washington region is calling on communities to band together to tackle the disproportionately high unemployment levels among African Americans and Hispanics.

In a report issued last week, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) urged political, business and education leaders to join forces in addressing the issue by aligning pre-kindergarten through 12th grade coursework with post-secondary education and job-training programs, and by knocking down barriers between jurisdictions. It also calls for more vocational and career-training programs in high schools.

"For the first time, we have the brightest minds and the brightest research groups working on the problem, rather than working in silos," D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said. "The real key is how do we get [blacks and Hispanics] trained for the jobs of the future? There needs to be an infrastructure set up that allows people [to get jobs] to feed their families."

While the steady creation of jobs by the federal government has largely shielded the region from the unemployment spikes experienced by much of the country, the jobless rate in the District has been hovering above the national level. Moreover, experts say, unemployment among blacks and Hispanics in D.C., Maryland and Virginia has risen in recent months -- with those groups two or three times as likely to be jobless as whites.

Unemployment in D.C. in the third quarter is expected to reach 6.1 percent for whites, and 18.9 percent for blacks, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute.

Experts predict that 1.2 million positions in such fields as computer and data processing, engineering, medical research, and business services will be created over the next 20 years in the region. Many communities are expected to experience dramatic job growth -- including a 49 percent rise in Prince George's County, a 66 percent climb in Manassas and a 123 percent jump in Loudoun County. But many blacks and Hispanics, they say, will not qualify because they either dropped out of high school or are not fluent in English.

According to the "Closing the Gaps to Build the Future" report, 62 percent of Asians and 58 percent of whites in the region have a bachelor's degree. But only 29 percent of blacks and 23 percent of Hispanics do. Nearly 60 percent of Hispanics and 43 percent of blacks have a high school diploma or less.

Blacks ages 16-24 have the highest unemployment rate of any group and rank No. 1 in the proportion of those not looking for work. And those who are working often are stuck in low-wage jobs that are vulnerable to being cut.

The Washington region's labor market is churning, with high-skill, high-paid jobs replacing low-skill ones -- many of which could be gone for good, said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

"We could lose 100,000 retail jobs and make [the income] up by 13,000 federal jobs," Fuller said at a regional economic forum on Friday.

"Think about the unemployed," he added. "If the jobs aren't coming back that were lost, what will they do?"

The report says growth is anticipated in middle-skill jobs, which require training but less than a bachelor's degree.

Barbara B. Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who has been heavily involved in workforce development issues, said employers should train low-skill workers for such middle-skill jobs. For instance, she said, a cashier could, be trained to become a distribution manager, and an administrative assistant could be trained to become an office manager.

"How can you get people moved into a role with higher pay and more responsibility?" Lang said. Moving those people into better jobs, she added, will "open up entry-level positions."

The report recommended that more transportation and child care be provided so that more people can participate in job-training programs. It also said high schools should introduce more vocational and career-training courses, and expand programs allowing students to concurrently enroll in college.

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