Gray turns to the experts on D.C. hiring

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, December 20, 2010

Wondering when the private sector will begin hiring again, D.C. mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray decided just to ask. His jobs summit on Dec. 13 allowed him to hear from more than 50 of the area's largest employers about what would allow them to grow and what it would take for them to hire more D.C. residents.

Not many of the answers are easy. In the short term, Gray faces an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent and as much as $400 million in budget shortfalls. In the long term, he must wrestle with the same issue his predecessors have, namely that some D.C. residents lack the education and skills required to fill many of the city's jobs. Here are some of the suggestions, proposals and gripes from summit attendees, held at the D.C. office of Arnold & Porter.

-- Andrew C. Florance, chief executive, CoStar Group

Florance founded his commercial real estate information provider in the District in 1987 and returned the firm here this year after receiving a tax break from the city. In exchange for the tax deal, Florance hired more than 100 D.C. residents, convinced dozens of his previous employees to move to the city and hired small, minority-owned D.C. firms for some of his office improvements. But his D.C.-based drywaller, he said, was not unionized, leading to labor protests. "We've had protesters out in front of our offices nearly every day," he said.

Job applicants and board members were forced to navigate the throng to get inside, and CoStar's board was not thrilled by Florance's plans to expand further in the District. "I think one thing that would be more productive would be a more productive relationship with labor," Florance said.

-- Antwanye Ford, president, Enlightened

A District-based information technology and cyber security contractor, Enlightened does about half of its business for the federal government, including contracts with the Navy and Army, and another quarter of its work for the city government, including deals with the chief financial officer and the D.C. Superior Court. Ford said he was eager to hire city residents, but that most of the jobs at his company require security clearance and technical training.

"The difficulty with that is actually finding the people in the District," Ford said.

Gray's interest in expanding technical training at the city's high schools and colleges, Ford said, was "the route to take."

-- Jonathan Gueverra, chief executive, Community College of the District of Columbia.

Gray lauded the creation of the new community college, but the school was created within the University of the District of Columbia, which has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country during the past six years. Gueverra's task is to take graduates from District high schools and prepare them to enter a largely white-collar job market. "The reality is that the jobs that are available . . . these are jobs that require education well beyond high school," Gueverra said.

Academics are only part of the solution, Gueverra added. He said he had personally intervened on behalf of one student in the hope that he might be hired for a customer service job at a local hotel. Despite assurances from the student that he would dress professionally, "he showed up to the interview wearing jeans," Gueverra said.

-- Paul J. Cohn, co-founder, Capital Restaurant Concepts

Owner and operator of restaurants including Georgia Brown's, J. Paul's and Old Glory Bar-B-Que, Cohn is in the position to hire D.C. residents for jobs that do not require a college degree or security clearance. But he said that D.C. job applicants were not what they should be and that the city's disjointed job training programs made doing business in the city more difficult.

"There are a lot of things that are clearly being done, but there is no coordination" when it comes to job training, Cohn said. His suggestion to Gray was that the administration give workforce problems a higher priority than the city has in the past. "I think it needs to be a cabinet post," he said.

-- Patricia A. McGuire, president, Trinity Washington University

McGuire, one of half a dozen university presidents to attend the meeting, said that in many cases the city's colleges and universities are explicitly prevented from expanding because of employment caps, typically at the request of city residents concerned about the growth of student populations in their neighborhoods.

But given the thousands of people that they employ, McGuire said, the city's universities deserved better support from the city. She suggested that the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, which was created by Congress in 1999 to provide federal funding for D.C. students headed to public colleges and universities across the country, might be one of the things to address in trying to shore up the city's workforce. "Guess what happens when people go to college in other states?" she said. "They stay there."

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