At Gray's D.C. jobs summit, leaders express doubts about city's progress in preparing workers

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 10:22 PM

Keeping a mayoral campaign promise to hold a job-creation summit, Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray assembled about 50 company chiefs, entrepreneurs and college presidents to discuss how to tackle one of the Ditrict's most frightening statistics: an unemployment rate as high as 30 percent in Ward 8.

Employers repeatedly brought up obstacles - from government policies and labor disputes to social ills - that prevent them from hiring D.C. residents.

Despite about 300,000 jobs that are expected to be developed in the District over the next decade, George Mason University professor Stephen S. Fuller opened the summit by challenging Gray (D). He and others urged the city to prepare residents for those jobs but also to bring in industry that could match the skills of the unemployed and underemployed.

"There's a large group . . . unprepared for the jobs being created," he said.

Gray said his administration would seek to restore technical and vocational education in public schools, refocus the mission of the Department of Employment Services to create jobs instead of unemployment benefits, and support the new community college at the University of the District of Columbia.

But those goals come with their own set of challenges. Jonathan Gueverra, chief executive of the community college, said students graduating from city public schools are ill-prepared for higher education. He said that 82 percent of the college's students need developmental classes.

Beyond the classroom, he said, students need to learn work etiquette. He pointed to a successful graduate of Booker T. Washington Public Charter School who, despite excelling in the classroom, went to a job interview in jeans although he had been told to wear professional attire. Gueverra recommended "career coaches as early as middle school."

Other employers also lamented broader city issues that affect their ability to attract customers and qualified workers.

Eliot Battle, founder and director of Cultura Cosmetic Dermatology & Laser Center, said he has 23 female employees who are concerned about the high cost of parking and also believe that they are not always safe - concerns that also affect his clients.

Pedro Alfonso, co-founder and head of Dynamic Concepts, a telecommunications firm, said that as soon as an employee begins earning "reasonable money," they leave the District in the hope of buying a home at a more affordable price. Residents with jobs in the District become nonresidents, he said.

Trinity University President Patricia A. McGuire said the District's tuition assistance grant program is also draining the city of residents who could be talented members of the local workforce. The program grants students as much as $10,000 at state colleges outside the District to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition, and also provides up to $2,500 an academic year for local private schools such as Trinity.

While praising the program, McGuire said it "somewhat perversely" pushes college-educated residents out of the city because those going out of the state stay there. "We need a program that will retain the best and the brightest," she said.

McGuire, joined by George Washington University President Steven Knapp and other college presidents, also raised concerns about the caps placed on the expansion of colleges in the city.

Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau said the city should designate a staff member who would "cut through bureaucracy" for local colleges to help align academic programs with the city's needs in job development.

"It shouldn't be a random crapshoot," he said.

Capital Business writer Jonathan O'Connell contributed to this report.

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