D.C. residents have not benefited from the city's economic revival in part because public schools have cut vocational programs and do not promote skilled labor as a career option, a frustrated crowd of union leaders, community activists and job-training providers told a D.C. Council hearing yesterday.
During one of the biggest building booms in city history, high-paying construction jobs are going to outsiders because District residents are not sufficiently trained or educated to fill them, several witnesses said. Meanwhile, they said, school principals and guidance counselors reject offers from union officials to inform students about apprenticeships in the construction trades.
"Counselors in the schools want these kids to go to college. But when you come out of my four-year apprentice program, you already have a pension, you already have medical insurance, and, in my trade, you're making $60,000 a year," said Lino Cressotti, business manager for Local 24 of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers. Jobs in the insulation trade are going begging, Cressotti said.
"They need to let us in the schools," Cressotti said.
Others complained that while D.C. schools aren't offering vocational education, they aren't teaching basic skills, either.
"Our kids are just not educated. . . . They don't know how to read. They can't do math. And they don't know how to use a ruler," said George Starke, president of the Excel Institute, which teaches people 16 and older how to fix cars. "There's a lot of people with high school diplomas who they think they can read and write. It's not a pretty picture" when they find out that their education is not good enough for a real job, he said.
The complaints rolled on all day and into the evening. More than 120 people signed up to testify at the hearing on "Vocational Education and Jobs for District Residents."
The hearing was held by a special committee chaired by council member and former mayor Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Under the council's seniority policies, Barry and two other council freshmen were ruled ineligible to preside over regular committees after their election last fall. So Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) created three special committees and put Barry in charge of the panel on jobs and vocational education.
Yesterday's hearing was the committee's first, and Barry annoyed some in the crowd by showing up nearly an hour late. But once he had arrived, limping slightly, and settled into the chairman's seat, Barry was all business.
In a prepared statement, he recited some relevant facts: Less than a third of the city's more than 600,000 jobs are held by city residents. Since 1999, the city has had a net gain of more than 60,000 jobs, but the D.C. unemployment rate, 6.4 percent in August, is well above the regional and national averages.
"We in Washington, D.C., are experiencing the best of times but yet the worst of times. The number of jobs is rising, but so is unemployment," Barry said. "Go to these construction sites. You'll find that a majority of construction workers are not District residents."
Barry promised to ask Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to substantially increase funding for vocational education and job training in the coming city budget.
Williams has moved to address the jobs crisis with his Way to Workinitiative, a package of programs intended to increase the number of businesses required to hire city residents and pay them a higher minimum wage. Meanwhile, this year, the council approved Cropp's proposal to finance more than $100 million in school construction projects, placing a special priority on projects related to vocational education.
D.C. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey also is working on the problem, and he expects to release a master education plan that may include expanded vocational education options by the end of the year.
Yesterday's hearing was called to hear from members of the public. Barry said he plans to call administration and school officials to a separate session Oct. 13.