The Barry administration sold itself short last month when it announced with considerable fanfare that the mayor was initiating a program to seek suburban jobs for D.C. residents.
To be sure, Mayor Barry's announcement of a seven-point plan to make suburban jobs more accessible to city residents was prompted by a desire to reduce the District's 8 percent unemployment rate -- still disturbingly high, compared with the jobless rate for the region as a whole. Indeed, the mayor appealed directly to employers in the suburbs to "give our workers a chance" to be considered for jobs for which they might qualify.
But there is potentially much more to the plan than that, even though the mayor and his aides placed the emphasis on securing jobs for city residents. The mayor's plan is much broader than a mere appeal for jobs. In fact, the plan could be one of the most important contributions to the stability and growth of the region's economy, if executed properly and if it receives the full support of business and government leaders in suburban jurisdictions.
Although it probably wasn't intended as such, it is the first genuine response by local public officials to a critical question that was raised in a Greater Washington Research Center study in late 1983. The study, which is titled, "The Changing Economy of the Washington Area," documented sectoral shifts in employment and warned of a vulnerability to cyclical variations in the national economy. With increased cyclical activity, the study warned, the Washington area "may experience greater variation in unemployment and a growing uneveness in its pattern of income distribution."
In what might be described as a challenge to the region's public and private sectors, the study's authors concluded that the evolution of the local economy will be affected by "the accumulated actions of individual businessmen and public officials." The product of those officials' actions, the authors continued, "will affect the region's residents, their employment and their income levels."
Twice in the past year or so, suggestions have been made that local public officials and business leaders convene a conference to try and solve the area's employment problems -- high jobless rates in the District and employment shortages in some suburban jurisdictions. Significant changes in employment patterns and studies warning of structural shifts in the economy notwithstanding, elected officials have, for the most part, treated these developments as isolated problems.
Regional cooperation has been the keystone in solving many common area problems, but it has been little more than a catch-phrase in addressing employment problems. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the rhetoric about building a strong regional economy is muted too often by parochialism. Realistically, parochial interests, rather than a desire to develop a strong regional economy, fuel the drive for economic development gains in metropolitan Washington.
Until now, public officials in the area's cities and counties haven't seen fit to discuss employment problems as a regional issue. High unemployment in the District has been regarded largely as a D.C. problem that has little effect on the suburbs, where jobless rates have remained low, even during the last recession.
Ironically, the inability of employers to fill thousands of jobs in the suburbs in recent months has drawn wide attention to a unique problem. The added irony is that employment in the District has improved significantly over the last year. Total joblessness in the city dropped by 2,600 and employment increased by 7,800 between April 1984 and April 1985, the latest 12-month period for which figures are available.
It is even more ironic then, that Barry and his aides have seized the initiative in an attempt to solve the jobs problem. Certainly Barry wants to secure employment for D.C. residents, but his plan could have the effect of curing a different kind of employment problem in suburban jurisdictions.
The plan's major features provide for meetings with suburban employers, free screening and referral services by the District for suburban employers, a transportation response center to facilitate travel to remote work sites, customized training of D.C. residents and establishment of a Washington Metropolitan Area Job Council for continued planning.
The key point, arguably, is creation of the area job council, which would be composed of representatives from the public and private sectors. It can and should become a clearinghouse to serve the needs of employers throughout metropolitan Washington.
"We've gone about as far as we can on our own. We really do need the cooperation of others," a D.C. government official said this week.
Initial reaction to the District's plan has been favorable among suburban officials and employers. The Greater Washington Board of Trade's initiative in building support for the plan in the private sector enhances its chances of success.
Presumably, everyone will benefit from what should evolve as a regional plan.