How to create more jobs for D.C. residents

Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 7:44 PM

DISTRICT OFFICIALS should know by now that simply mandating that city residents be hired for new jobs doesn't work. Its First Source law requiring city-resident labor for taxpayer-funded projects has been largely ineffective, serving the needs neither of employers nor of those in search of work. It's not likely that tougher requirements or stricter enforcement, now being proposed, will produce any better results when the real issue is the disparity that exists between the demands of the workplace and the skills of the workforce. More than a Band-Aid approach is needed if the city is to have any hope of putting more of its denizens to work.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) has introduced legislation seeking to overhaul hiring requirements for those receiving city contracts. Enacted in 1984, the First Source Employment Agreement required businesses to ensure that at least 51 percent of new jobs for a taxpayer-supported project go to D.C. residents. Mr. Brown's proposal sets new requirements based on the number of hours worked on the job and tailored to varying levels of work skills. So, for example, it would require that 20 percent of all non-construction hours on government contracts totaling $300,000 be allocated to city residents, and as much as 70 percent of common-laborer hours on construction projects would have to go to city residents. It also calls for better enforcement and increased penalties.

Mr. Brown stresses that there still would be waivers for companies that make a good-faith effort but are still unable to find qualified workers. And, therein lies the far bigger problem: If city residents lack life skills, are illiterate or haven't been trained for existing jobs, no amount of new rules or requirements will help them get jobs. A recent policy brief by DC Appleseed, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the D.C. Employment Justice Center and other nonprofit organizations identified this "skills mismatch" between D.C. residents seeking work and available jobs in calling for a more comprehensive approach to workplace development.

To Mr. Brown's credit, his proposal calls for establishment of a task force to study workforce intermediary programs in which government is a partner with the private sector in assessing, training and matching residents with jobs. The history of job training in the District has been less than stellar, so there are lessons to be learned from the experience of other cities where healthy private-public partnerships have been formed and where training has been focused on a particular industry or set of skills.

Mr. Brown's proposal was seen as beating to the punch Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who campaigned on a promise of improved job training and who is said to be coming up with his own proposal for strengthening workforce development. Chronic unemployment has plagued parts of the District for decades. It's good to see government focused on the challenge, but there are no easy answers, and it's important that the executive and council work together.

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