BALTIMORE — Not long ago, Robert Dorsey was working a low-wage job and struggling to make ends meet. He was skinny because food often proved too expensive. He had no car. And he grew even more worried about paying the bills once he found out his girlfriend was pregnant.
Then he spotted a flier that promised a career he had not considered.
“Working in the water industry is something I never even imagined,” Dorsey said recently at the Montebello Filtration Plant in Baltimore. He works there now, filtering the water used by people in the city and the surrounding counties.
“This is where 1.8 million people are served,” he said. “This is a field that isn’t going anywhere. Everybody needs clean drinking water.”
Dorsey, 26, is one of more than two dozen graduates of the Baltimore City Water Industry Career Mentoring Program, which, in its third year, aims to train young people for careers in Baltimore’s Department of Public Works or similar private-sector jobs.
The idea is to solve two of Baltimore’s biggest problems — joblessness and a polluted Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.
“It’s a way for people who aren’t college-savvy to get a trade that you can do with your hands and still help out and contribute,” Dorsey said. “If this opportunity hadn’t presented itself, I would have been doing a lot of job hopping.”
The extra money means Dorsey can eat better and afford a car, he said.
“I’m doing good. I gained weight,” he said. “When I first started here, I was walking to work. I drive to work now.”
Officials with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development said the program came about because of job shortages in the water industry, which covers everything from working on pipes to fixing erroneous water bills. Youths receive six months of mentoring and a chance to earn a career in the industry.
The program is open to Baltimore residents between the ages of 18 and 24 who have a high school diploma or GED, are unemployed or are considered underemployed — meaning they have jobs with low wages and little chance for career advancement.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said the program lets Baltimore “take the lead in training the next generation of workers in the water profession,” which she said is “facing the retirement of seasoned workers and a shortage of trained newcomers.”
The mentoring program includes job readiness training, introduction to a variety of jobs in the water industry, job shadowing, work with a career coach and a placement in the city’s summer jobs program, called YouthWorks. Participants then interview for full-time jobs that typically start at around $30,000 a year. The new employees are put on a path that often leads to salary increases, a department spokesman said.
Ernest Dorsey, the city’s Youth Services manager, said the program launched in 2015 after the Chesapeake Water Environment Association approached the city about creating a training program for local workers.
“The Chesapeake Water Environment Association came to us and said, ‘We have a need.’ We listened to what their needs were, and we crafted a program that would expose young people to a career leading to employment,” Dorsey said. “You shouldn’t craft a program just to train people and then have them go home. You have to make sure there are employee opportunities at the end of the road.”
Charles Allen, 24, a water-meter technician who went through the program, said he would probably be “in and out of school, working two or three jobs,” if an older cousin hadn’t encouraged him to apply.
“I thought I needed to do something better with my life,” he said, noting that he’s been able to get a car thanks to his new job in city government. “Nothing but good things have come from this.”
Allen and other young men credit city internship coordinator Anthony L. Greene, who runs the training program, with being key to their success.
“Mr. Greene is the glue that bridges from YouthWorks to DPW,” he said.
Greene drills into the young workers the basics of success in a career: Showing up early, working hard, being responsible.
“I stayed on their butts. I rode them a little bit,” Greene said. “These young men and women are now actually on a fast track. They’re leapfrogging employees who are older than them.”
Greene recalls teaching a class during the first year of the program on April 27, 2015 — the day rioting broke out after the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died of injuries received while in police custody.
Greene told the trainees they were welcome to go home early. But all chose to stay and continue learning, he said.
“Phones started going off. One young man said, ‘Mr. Greene, they’re rioting up at Mondawmin,’ ” Greene recalled. “But they didn’t want to leave early. They wanted to stay out of all that.”
Several members of the City Council praised the program but said it needs to be expanded to more city agencies. Each agency, they said, should have job training and apprenticeships to make sure Baltimore residents are landing jobs.
“I ask the question of every city agency: Do you have an apprenticeship program?” said City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton. “I’ve had that conversation with the mayor, and she’s very much interested. We’re trying to find as many jobs in the private sector and government to help our youth be career-focused.”
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the Department of Public Works program “should be expanded to every city agency.”
“We’ve been pressing all city agencies to develop similar programs,” he said. “Not everybody’s going to college. We want them to get trained and get employed by the city of Baltimore.”