Commentary: Mr. Mayor, take these steps for workforce development

By Martha Ross
Monday, January 31, 2011

Last week, the District's unemployment rate fell by one-tenth of a percentage point to 9.7 percent in December. While that's progress, no mayor wants to see high unemployment numbers.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray made jobs and economic development priorities in his campaign and transition, and hopefully he will continue that momentum as he begins his term. Mayors can't wave a magic wand to create jobs in a recession, but they can exercise leadership to ensure that workforce and economic development dollars are wisely allocated to efforts that will align with the growth of permanent, well-paying jobs for D.C. residents.

The Washington region has weathered the recession better than most. But the District is home to substantial numbers of adults and young people disconnected from the region's employment opportunities. They may not have the appropriate skills and experience, they may lack the networks to connect to employment opportunities, or they may face problems commuting to areas not well served by public transportation.

While there are pockets of excellence, employment and training programs are fragmented and aren't always responsive to employers' needs. A clear mayoral mandate -- with the leadership structure to back it up -- to connect young people and adults to career pathways would provide government leaders, employers and service providers a shared goal and offer a framework for working together. The city should capitalize on the strengths of different players. For instance, employers need a talent pipeline but often don't provide extensive training. Community-based organizations can excel in recruitment, supportive services and training, but need input from employers about curricula and job openings. Similarly, GED programs can partner with colleges and universities to prepare students for post-secondary education.

Here are several key steps Gray (D) can take to transform workforce development in the District: Overhaul the Workforce Investment Council. The WIC is a federally mandated body charged with setting workforce development policy. It has been dormant and ineffective when it should be overseeing a strategic workforce development agenda and facilitating collaboration among employers, educational institutions, government agencies and nonprofit providers.

Reinvent the First Source program. Its goal is to leverage city subsidies on contracts and development to create more jobs for residents, but no one is satisfied with it. The program should be much more forward-looking, so that it anticipates hiring needs and helps identify, recruit and train workers. A successful program should be viewed as a resource by employers rather than a regulatory burden.

Link economic development with workforce development. The office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development should do more to spur inclusive economic growth by developing strategies to attract and retain key industry sectors and helping those sectors meet their employment needs.

Refocus the youth employment agenda beyond summer jobs. His administration should strengthen career and technical education in the public schools and increase internship options for public high school students, focusing on major employers such as the federal government, universities, hospitals, law firms and other white-collar offices.

Continue to support the Community College of the District of Columbia. CCDC has made huge strides in the past 1 1/2 years, but it will be more successful if it is able to move towards independence from the University of the District of Columbia. Community colleges and state universities have different missions, programs, faculty and services, and they shouldn't be housed in the same institution to compete for resources and attention.

By taking these steps, Gray can build out the economic opportunity agenda he outlined in his campaign, and make serious progress toward achieving his vision of "One City."

Martha Ross is deputy director of Greater Washington Research at the Brookings Institution and follows unemployment data in the District.

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