Howard County has an abundance of what west Baltimore residents need: jobs.
The problem, until now, is that many of the people who could fill some of those jobs--at restaurants, distribution centers, office supply companies--didn't have a way to get to them.
Howard County officials are poised to do something about that. This fall, the county won a Federal Transit Administration grant to start a reverse-commuting program, designed to bring Baltimore residents to jobs in Howard County, where employers are hungry for workers.
The county had the lowest unemployment rate in the state in September, 1.8 percent. After getting matching funds for the program from the state's Mass Transit Administration and Empower Baltimore Management Corp., the nonprofit group that administers Baltimore's $100 million empowerment zone grant, the program should begin within a few weeks.
"It's pretty exciting," said Carl Balser, Howard County's transportation planning chief. "It's attacking two problems at once. We in Howard County have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, and just a few miles away, in Baltimore, we have an area that has one of the highest unemployment rates."
The empowerment zone in west Baltimore comprises four neighborhoods, and workers from those areas will be transported from their homes to jobs in Howard County. The service will start slowly at first, probably with sedans and station wagons, until the passenger list grows enough to expand.
If a job fair held in Washington Village last month was any indication, the list should grow quickly.
"There were only four employers, and it was a half-day job fair, but it was jammed, overflowing," Balser said. He said that a few people were offered jobs on the spot and that others were asked back for second interviews. "It was more successful than I expected."
He said several other employers are interested in participating, so he is hoping to have larger job fairs next month and in January.
The idea for the Howard County reverse-commuting program--commonly called that because it takes people opposite the typical commuting pattern from suburbs to cities--came from Empower Baltimore. Balser heard about it and then learned of a new source of federal money, the Reverse Commute and Access to Jobs Grant.
The county will receive about $327,000 from the Federal Transit Administration, an amount matched by the state and the empowerment management corporation. Balser said the county is doing an in-kind match of about $132,000, by coordinating the job fairs, marketing the program and handling administrative details. It will contract out the transportation service to a private group, which would provide rides to Baltimore residents free of charge.
"These are folks who have barriers to working," Balser said. "At least one of those is transportation. We don't want to create another barrier" by charging for it.
Removing barriers to jobs is one of Empower Baltimore's missions. A similar reverse-commuting program for residents from the east Baltimore empowerment zone is a success, taking them to jobs in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, and Empower Baltimore spokesman Michael Preston says he believes this new effort also will succeed.
"These are additional job opportunities for the people living in the zone, and in many cases, the salaries may be a little better," he said. "For the companies in Howard County, these are positions that are open right now and probably would remain open without a program like this."
Balser is looking ahead to next year, because he'll have to apply for more federal money to keep the program running.
"We had hoped to have some operational history under our belt by now," he said. "But based on what we're seeing so far, we're definitely going to shoot for a larger program. I think we've got a good chance at it."