Job 1 for Gray: Helping to reduce persistent D.C. unemployment

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President Barack Obama says he's pleased with healthier job growth, but concedes the economy isn't producing enough jobs to accommodate people in need of work.

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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 9:34 PM

In the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington last month, more than 500 men and women clutched resumes and desperately tried to get off one of the city's most lingering rolls: the unemployed.

"I've been out of a job for three years," said Keith Mayo, a Northeast resident who worked for the U.S. Postal Service.

Surrounded by muted light and hopeful - yet realistic - conversations between applicants and potential employers, Mayo estimated that he has applied for 500 jobs. The District native is now banking on Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray to lift him out of his three-year struggle. "I'm hoping he creates more jobs for people like me," said Mayo, 30, who attended technical college and has work experience.

That's a tough task for any mayor in a weak economy - but particularly for Gray. He campaigned on a promise to help 40,000 jobless residents qualify for and get jobs, but he is inheriting a city with double-digit unemployment, sagging revenue and crushing debt. Experts say those conditions will undercut any job-creation initiative at the Department of Employment Services, which critics say is a directionless, mismanaged agency that operates perennially over-budget programs lacking long-term strategies to decrease the jobless rate.

According to government reports and interviews, DOES spent more than 60 percent of its employment-creation funds on the controversial summer jobs program for youths. An apprenticeship program produced more than 1,500 new slots last year, but just one out of every four jobs went to city residents. The public-private entity that advises the mayor and city government on its workforce development and guides millions of dollars in federal funds was run by an employee whose permanent residence was two states away. He was replaced last month.

Advocates for the unemployed say DOES needs an overhaul and the kind of aggressive attention that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty gave to public education - a step Gray appears poised to take but that observers say could prove eminently more difficult.

"The District is a place where everyone expects something to happen instantaneously," said Gregg Irish, the director of DOES under Mayor Anthony A. Williams who now runs the Workforce Investment Board in Los Angeles. "You can't do it in four years. If I were Vince, I'd come up with an eight-year plan."

And summer jobs are not the trick, Irish said. "Summer programs are like instant coffee," Irish said. "You've got to brew something else up."

An untrained workforce?

Even as the city's jobless rate reached a record 12 percent in January 2010, the Fenty administration continued to pour taxpayer dollars: $46 million of $74 million designated for workforce development. Advocates for the jobless say the administration shortsightedly dedicated itself to a program with jobs that are neither permanent nor full time.

Gray has promised to greatly reduce the amount of money going to summer jobs. But advocates say he should brace for a backlash because many parents expect their children to be employed during the summer.

On the campaign trail, Gray also hammered away at the Fenty administration's poor enforcement of First Source, a city law that requires businesses receiving city funds for their projects to fill 51 percent of new jobs with District residents.

A D.C. auditor's probe, released in May, found that just four out of 16 development projects surveyed met the requirement.


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