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

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.

At a recent town hall meeting in Ward 4, Gray drew laughter and applause when he said businesses that do not meet the requirement can expect to lose contracts. "In Monopoly, they would say, 'Do not go past go,' " he said, "and you don't get a get-out-of-jail-free card."

But there are already rumblings in the business community about pushing back on Gray's plan for compliance as companies grapple with a local workforce that may not be qualified for the jobs that are being produced.

Rod Woodson, a co-chairman on the Workforce Investment Council that advises the mayor on job development in the city and guides federal funds, said politicians talk about First Source like it's magic. "It is not," he said. "It never has been."

Woodson, like others, said the key to turning around the city's unemployment rate is to look forward to the growing industries of banking and finance, health care, and tourism and hospitality.

Gray's economic development plan looks at those areas. He has appointed Barbara Lang, executive director of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, to advise him on jobs and economic development during his transition.

Gray has repeatedly said that his plan will revive vocational education in schools, rely on the newly opened community college at the University of the District of Columbia to train residents and reform DOES.

"I don't want our DOES to be defined as the place where you go to get unemployment benefits," Gray said.

Problems at the top

A running joke in city government is that DOES is not DOES; it's the summer jobs employment agency. And the public-private entity created years ago to make sure DOES is on track received little help from the Fenty administration, according to current and former board members.

The Workforce Investment Council continues to lack the necessary organization, leadership and interest to deliver on its mandate, said Bill Dean, chairman of the WIC and in charge of corralling the 39-member board.

"At the end of the day, the WIC, as a body, has never, ever been properly engaged. It has never fulfilled its proper function," said Dean.

Until he was replaced last month, the executive director of the WIC lived in Pennsylvania. Keith Mitchell, who was a holdover from the Williams administration, is a respected official knowledgeable of federal job rules, but his residence was less than desirable. Though Mitchell was "one of the best policy guys I've known," his residence "two states away . . . compounds the problem," said Dean, chief executive officer of Dulles-based M.C. Dean Inc.

In an e-mail, Mitchell said he lived with relatives in Southeast Washington while working in the city, although his permanent residence was in Harrisburg, Pa.

When Mitchell was there, he was pretty much it, board members said. Without a staff, Dean said, he and the WIC couldn't function. "What am I going to do? Sit around. I decided to move past it," he said.

Dean assigned two of his own employees, at the expense of M.C. Dean, to work at the council.

Lang, Dean's predecessor, said she, too, assigned chamber employees to help her because the administration did not. She said she broached the idea of turning the WIC into a nonprofit to give it the ability to raise funds but was rebuffed.

Former DOES director Summer Spencer confirmed Lang's account, saying Fenty was not on board. "Unfortunately, in the end, it turned out that . . . the mayor was no longer interested in structuring the WIC as its own separate . . . entity," said Spencer, whom Fenty later removed after the summer jobs program went $30 million over budget in 2008. The WIC's problems preceded the Fenty administration. In 2006, The Washington Post investigated D.C. unemployment and found a nonfunctioning WIC. As happened then, minutes of recent meetings show that appointees often send representatives in their place, which advocates say signals the lack of commitment outside the administration.

Frustrated, Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, said she, too, has not been to a meeting in well over a year. "Even at the height of participation, you always had more nonprofits in the room than employers," said Durso.

Sara Oldmixon - director of the Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative, which helps low-income residents get good-paying jobs - agreed with Durso. "Without strong relationships with local employers, DOES will have a difficult time tracking which jobs are most in demand, which could translate into missed employment opportunities for District workers seeking employment," she said.

Durso, who will leave the hotel association at the end of next month and amid speculation that she will join the Gray administration, said the problems appear surmountable. "There doesn't seem to be a problem finding money for training. We, District businesses, don't do a good job [of] having jobs ready for them when they get out," she said.

There are major opportunities approaching, she said. "Homeland Security is coming to St. E's. Twenty-two thousand jobs. Let's train people for those jobs," Durso said, referring to plans for the federal agency to move to the Southeast property of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Dean said he is extremely proud of the city's apprenticeship council, which increased by 67 the number of District residents able to get the apprenticeships last year compared with 2008. But that number still stood at just 374 out of more than 1,500.

"You just can't snap your fingers to make it from zero to 75 percent," Dean said.

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