D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser named restaurateur Andy Shallal, a former mayoral-race rival, to chair a key city workforce council Monday, belatedly filling a post as demanded by the U.S. Department of Labor and other critics of the city’s poor performance in providing job training for the unemployed.
Bowser (D) also pledged to fix other problems in the city’s jobs programs after The Washington Post reported Sunday that bureaucratic obstacles at city agencies have blocked the spending of tens of millions of dollars in available funds that could have helped thousands of the unemployed to find work.
“We’re identifying where we have inefficient and ineffective programs,” the mayor said. “We’re strengthening our customer service at the Department of Employment Services.”
But Bowser said the underspending and other difficulties existed for years before she took office in January. She added that it was probably best that some of the money wasn’t spent, because it would have been wasted on ineffective contractors who wouldn’t provide good training for the jobless.
Shallal, best known as owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants, will chair the Workforce Investment Council.
The body, led by the private sector, has responsibility under U.S. law to help oversee the city’s use of federal job training money.
The chairmanship has been open since spring, and the Labor Department has demanded that the vacancy be filled as one condition for dropping its formal designation of the city as being a “high-risk” partner in job training and employment programs.
The District is the only jurisdiction in the nation to have that status, which puts the city under increased federal oversight and at risk of suffering a slowdown in federal grants totaling $24 million a year for job training.
“We need a dynamic and creative leader to chair this important body, and Andy is that leader,” said Bowser, who announced her choice at a regular council meeting.
The mayor said she wants to satisfy the Labor Department’s other criteria so that the District loses its “high-risk” status. Among other things, the city needs to address serious shortcomings in its youth employment programs, improve management of unemployment insurance and fill the long-vacant post of permanent executive director of the Workforce Investment Council.
“One of the first things that I wanted to do, and not just at [the Department of Employment Services] but all of our agencies where the federal government is involved somehow, I want to get off their list,” Bowser said.
In initial remarks as chairman, Shallal also emphasized the need “to regain the confidence” of the Labor Department.
“It’s quite disturbing to see federal funds go unused while the most vulnerable citizens are left languishing, unable to complete their GED [high-school equivalency] training or improve their work-readiness skills,” Shallal said.
Workforce Investment Council members and analysts generally praised the choice of Shallal, saying his prominence in city business and political circles will bring valuable attention to the city’s workforce challenges.
Shallal drew attention for his outspoken criticism of economic inequality in the District when he was one of a large crowd of contenders for the Democratic mayoralty nomination in 2014.
“What’s most important is that the person she selected is very passionate about the work,” said Thomas M. Penny, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott Convention Center, who has been on the workforce council for five years.
“There are bureaucratic barriers in governments everywhere. You need someone who’s so passionate that they’re willing to move that stuff out of the way,” Penny said.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who also sits on the Workforce Investment Council, called Shallal “a good choice” but expressed frustration that it took so long to pick him.
“There’s been a lot of delay. We lost nearly a whole year,” Grosso said. “Until we actually get down and make some tough decisions and get the [budgeted] money out the door, we’re not making any difference.
“It’s frustrating for [training] providers out there that want to do the work.”
Bowser said one of her goals was to shift both city and federal resources to on-the-job training programs.
“I don’t think we have the right model,” Bowser said. “I want to see D.C. residents in jobs and being trained on the job.”
She declined to predict how long it would take the District to shed its “high-risk” status with Labor, which it has had since 2012.
“The District has been on the list for many years,” the mayor said. “I’ve been mayor for 11 months.”