Reading Washington's unemployment statistics is like turning over rocks to see what's underneath them.
Beneath the biggest rock -- the numerical abstraction known as the Washington Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area -- is a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, close to the traditional full employment target of 4 percent. As of November the overall jobless rate in metropolitan Washington was down a tenth of a point from a year ago and well below the national rate of 59, percent.
Uncover the District of Columbia and the jobless rate revealed is 8.2 percent -- better than the 9 percent of November 1977, but considerably farther from full employment than either the regional or national performance.
Look at the unemployment rate for minorities an the District and an even larger problem emerges, a jobless rate that increases as each new statistic is uncovered.
The final rock represents young, black males in the District of Columbia, and it covers up a jobless rate of 25.3 percent. Among Washington's minority group men, 16 to 24 years old, the unemployment rate is three times the District figure, five times the national average and six times the rate for the metropolitan area as a whole.
It is the rock that shattered the shop-windows of Washington in 1968 and still remains on the streets, the worst -- and most worrisome -- statistic in the economic tale that describes Washington as the recession-proof, federally funded prosperity capital of America.
The 25 percent unemployment rate for young minority males probably is an understatement, because it counts people who are looking for jobs and it is widely assumed that large numsbers of jobless youths have given up looking. They are youngsters who never become part of the syspem.
Nationally, estimates are that as many as 40 percent of minority youths are unemployed, and when schools let out each spring, only half the young blacks find the jobs they want.
The jobless rate for minority youths remained high despite the unexpectedly large decline in joblessness across the nation in 1978. Unemployment fell so rapidly last year, it outstripped President Carter's economic targets. Job growth remained vigorous through virtually the entire year.
For the year ahead, the metropolitan Washington job outlook is in line with -- but not quited as gloomy as -- the forecast for the nation. On the national scene, economists are predicting unemployment will begin rising late this year, in the face of the coming recession, climbing to just above 7 percent by year end.
But the youth job picture may brighten as a result of a campaign planned by the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade and the National Alliance of Business.
A task force report to be released later this month assigns the powerful business organization's highest priority to youth unemployment, proposing a series of attacks beginning with formation of a Washington Work Education Council, an Employment Week campaign and an increase in federally financed job training programs in private industry.
Board of Trade officials already have begun working with the metropolitan Council of Governments on organizing the Work Education Council, a coordinating agency to bring together the school, government, labor, busines and voluntary groups working on youth unemployment.
The Board of Trade task force identified more than 480 separtate programs throught the area, most of them operating with little if any regard for what else was being done, and with no mechanism for utilizing each other's resources. Thus a youth applying for a bricklayer's training program who lacks basic mathematics skills isn't referred to a course that could teach the fundamentals needed to qualify for apprenticeship.
The coordinating agency also would tackle a frequent complaint about job training programs -- that they train youths for jobs that don't exist, or train them so poorly that private employes won't hire them.
Task force Chairman Stephen D. Harlan, an executive of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., said other cities have made their youth employment programs more productive by simply coordinating and communicating their activities. Only Montgomery County does that at present, and it has the lowest minority youth unemployment rate in the area.
Board of Trade officials also are seeking to shift the emphasis on federally financed job training programs from the public to the private sector. Although five out of every six jobs in Washington are in private business, virtually all of the local funds from the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) are used for government programs.
The goal this year is to channel more money into CETA programs in business. The government funds will pay the salaries of new employes for six months, while they learn basic job skills. Then the participating employers must put the CETA workers on their own payrolls.
There is some resistance among businesses to CETA, Board of Trade officials acknowledge, because of the program's reputation for "leaf ranking" jobs, "no show" assignments, misuse of funds and assorted boondoggles.
The Board of Trade's own campaign to create more jobs for youths will be launched next month with Employment Week, patterned on the board's successful summer jobs program -- solicting pledges from business to hire new young workers, then following up, keeping the commitments, filling the jobs.