Bureaucratic obstacles and other dysfunction at the District’s workforce agencies have blocked the spending of tens of millions of dollars in recent years to provide job training that could have helped thousands of the unemployed find work, according to officials and city contractors.
The failure to spend city and federal funds available for jobs programs occurred as city leaders lamented that high unemployment in poor neighborhoods was fueling crime.
Top District officials blame most of this year’s underspending on a shortage of nonprofit training providers qualified to do the work — while adding that many of the contractors stopped doing such work in the past because the city failed to pay them on time.
In addition, delays in issuing $1.7 million in grants have forced the shutdown since July 1 of federally financed programs to teach basic job skills to young high school dropouts.
One person affected was Karen Privado, 20, of Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington. She was close to getting her high-school equivalency degree, known as the GED, until her course at the Latin American Youth Center lost its funding in September. Now she hopes the course will resume next year, as District officials promise.
“It’s sad to me, because my goal this year was to get my GED,” Privado said.
The troubles are so severe that the District is the only jurisdiction in the nation that the U.S. Labor Department currently labels as a “high-risk” partner in job training and employment programs.
The designation, which the District has had since 2012, places the city under increased federal oversight and means it risks suffering a slowdown in federal grants totaling $24 million a year for job training.
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez expressed concern about the District’s shortcomings at a meeting with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in April.
Neither the Labor Department nor the mayor’s office would discuss the meeting, which they said was confidential. But documents released by the city following a Freedom of Information Act request show Labor is primarily unhappy with poor management of programs for youths up to age 24.
“Low enrollments, under-expenditures and poor performance have been endemic in the [federally] funded youth program,” Labor’s Employment and Training Administration said in a Sept. 18 letter to the city’s Department of Employment Services, or DOES.
Labor also has faulted the District for poor management of unemployment insurance and tardiness in filling key positions on the Workforce Investment Council. The council is appointed by the mayor but led by the private sector, and helps oversee use of federal job training money.
District leaders have said for years that improved job training was vital because a main cause of unemployment in the city is not a lack of jobs, but instead lack of qualifications among the jobless or underemployed.
“There are more jobs available than there are [qualified] people to fill them,” DOES Director Deborah Carroll said.
About 60,000 District adults lack a high-school diploma or its equivalent, and 30,000 or more have such a degree but aren’t reading at an eighth grade level, officials said. About 25,000 District residents are unemployed.
Carroll and her supervisor, Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden, said in interviews that they were committed to fixing the problems, many of which they said they inherited after taking office this year.
“For years, DOES has been an organization that has experienced many challenges, from low morale to poor implementation of programs,” Snowden, who holds the newly created position of deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, said.
She said the city would move quickly to resume federal funding for training out-of-school youths.
“We are going to get this money out the door,” Snowden said. “This is a population that needs support the most.”
The city also is using its own funds, rather than federal ones, to launch a new “career connections” program aimed at providing job training to about 400 youths in high-crime areas.
Snowden said relations with the Labor Department have improved, and the Bowser administration is “hyperfocused” on ridding itself of the “high-risk” status.
Underspending of federal and city money has contributed to a drop in the number of youths receiving job training. As of Dec. 1, the number of youths in job training was 494, compared to 758 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, DOES said.
“Programming has kind of ground to a halt,” Nadia Gold-Moritz, executive director of the Young Women’s Project, a nonprofit group, said. “The numbers [enrolled] are small and the need just grows every day. We’ve seen evidence of youths with nothing to do making bad decisions with guns.”
For youths who need job training and are out of school, federally funded programs were cut back partly so the District could prepare for an overhaul of the main federal workforce law that took effect July 1. New grants were supposed to be issued for fall courses, but they weren’t ready in time.
At the Latin American Youth Center, the shutdown disappointed Stephon Williams, 23, who lives in Congress Park in Southeast. He had been attending classes regularly since January, in hope that a GED would help him move ahead in the retail industry. He previously worked as a bagger and stock clerk at Giant, but aspires to a better position.
“You still need that certificate, because that’s how the world works,” Williams said. “I was actually learning something. . . . I understood fractions better. That made me want to be here.”
Williams dropped out of Benjamin Cardozo High School in the 10th grade after he turned 18.
“I thought I was too old. Ever since I left Cardozo, I’ve felt this [lack of a degree] was a heavy package on my shoulders,” he said.
Shortcomings in the youth program led the District to be one of only two jurisdictions in the nation this year to be formally sanctioned by the federal government for failure to meet agreed performance measures in job training. The other was the Virgin Islands.
The sanction, imposed June 28, penalized the District for failing for two consecutive years to meet its target for helping youths obtain a job credential such as a degree or work certificate.
The financial penalty was minimal: a reduction of $20,748 in an annual grant of more than $2 million. Nonetheless, officials said, Labor hoped the rare action would highlight its level of concern.
“Unfortunately, the District’s Department of Employment Services has not complied with its agreed upon performance goals and grant requirements for several years,” Gerri Fiala, deputy assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department, said.
DOES has struggled to manage job training programs funded by the District’s own budget as well as those supported by federal grants. In particular, the city has consistently spent less for adult job training than the mayor and D.C. Council have approved.
In the 2015 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the budget originally provided for $12 million for adult training. But $2.4 million was diverted to other workforce priorities, and $4.35 million was reprogrammed outside of DOES.
Ultimately, the budget for adult training ended up at $5.2 million, of which $3.8 million was spent, DOES said.
Such underspending is not new. In fiscal 2014, DOES spent $10 million less than the $63 million allocated for all forms of workforce development, using inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
That was an improvement from the two preceding years, when the shortfall totaled $46 million.
DOES “has under-spent its available funding in the last three years, despite high unemployment among residents without a college degree and great needs for employment assistance,” the institute said in a June 22 report.
The most expensive training costs about $10,000 per person, so the unspent money over that period could have served more than 5,000 unemployed.
Officials said the District was unable to spend all the money available for adult job training this year because the number of qualified training providers has dropped from 35 several years ago to only 14.
“Some dropped out,” Snowden said. “There were some payment issues. The District government was sometimes slow to pay bills.”
She said underspending will end.
“The administration will make use of every single dollar,” she said. “Focusing on unemployment and getting folks ready to work is part of a violence-prevention strategy and a crime-prevention strategy.”
Training providers and other analysts welcomed the administration’s public commitments but expressed concern about delays in filling top jobs at the Workforce Investment Council. They worry that the Bowser administration is less supportive of the council than former mayor Vincent C. Gray, who won plaudits from business and nonprofit leaders for strengthening the body.
Under federal law, the council is supposed to play a key role in ensuring that Labor Department grants are spent effectively. It also is supposed to take the lead in drawing up a comprehensive plan, due March 3, for the District to comply with the new federal workforce law, called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA.
The council has been without a board chair since the spring, when PNC Bank Regional President Michael N. Harreld resigned over differences with the new administration. It also has not had a permanent executive director since the start of the year.
“Mayor Bowser is not showing the same level of support for the [council] as Mayor Gray did,” Martha Ross, a fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said.
Snowden and Carroll denied that the Bowser administration was disregarding the council’s importance. They said a new board chair will be announced by the next council meeting, Dec. 14. They also are conducting a national search for a new executive director.
“What the Bowser administration has been focused on is finding high-quality, high-producing dynamic people to lead the workforce system,” Carroll said. “It has taken a while to get there.”
About 60,000 District adults lack a high-school diploma or its equivalent
30,000 or more have such a degree but can’t read at an eighth-grade level
About 25,000 District residents are unemployed