Every few months, at a community center in Adams Morgan, about 100 people gather for a celebration. They hold hands in a circle, hear a blessing, and then listen as the good news pours forth.
“My name is Mark Jones, and I’ve been at Harris Teeter for 385 days, and I’ve just been promoted to be a meat cutter,” one tall, bespectacled man announced at one such event recently, to cheers around the room. Another lady shares that she’s been hired by Macy’s at Tyson’s Corner. A Mr. Amstrong proclaims that starting that week, he’ll be making $56 an hour doing electrical work.
Next, over a communal dinner of spaghetti and salad, Kenneth Thomas relates the story of coming out of federal prison, getting hired at Ace Hardware, and being promoted after a year. “You got to want it,” Thomas tells the crowd. “That’s where I’m at in life. I just want to show up to do the best job I can.”
The evening feels almost religious, with people announcing their professional awakenings, and being cheered on with "amens.” But in fact, it's coldly practical: Many of those in attendance had spent years toiling in minimum wage jobs. The Move Up program, run by the career pathway organization Jubilee Jobs, is about pushing them one step further.
The mission, while not new, is ever more timely now. Much of the renewed debate around raising the minimum wage centers on the question of mobility: Those who favor a lower wage floor argue that such jobs are just a stepping stone to better employment, so we should preserve as many entry-level positions as possible, and nobody should have one for very long before moving on.
The problem is, for certain segments of the population, moving on has been the hard part. Numerous studies over the years have found that while some people do hold minimum wage jobs for a short time while they’re in school, many spend years as cashiers and fast food cooks, making barely enough to survive. As FiveThirtyEight documented earlier this year, that problem appears to be getting worse, since most of the jobs created during the great recession simply don’t pay all that well. Although retailers like Walmart point to the high percentage of their managers who started as on the store floor, the fact remains that in hierarchical organizations, not everyone can be promoted.
"It’s hard even for college graduates to get middle-level jobs,” says Terry Flood, Jubilee Jobs’ president. "So our applicants are going to need education and skills and a pretty big network and commitment to move from a minimum wage job to a $12 an hour job. We find it requires an awful lot of support.”
The guy in charge of running the Move Up program has some first-hand experience with how the labor market has changed.
46 years ago, Lawrence Taylor responded to a newspaper ad for Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company that read: “Craftsmen wanted. We will train.” He interviewed the next day, took a test, and was invited to start work doing wiring at the central office the following Monday. He had been planning to go to college, but opportunity after opportunity presented itself at the phone company, and it turned into a 31-year career.
“The contrast is shocking to me,” says Taylor, at Jubilee Jobs’ cramped rowhouse office. “I qualified to buy a home in my neighborhood of Petworth off of that salary. Now, with an entry level job, without any subsidies, you’re going to be homeless. And that’s what we’re up against. That represents the battle, and the concessions."
Even 10 years ago, Taylor says, they could secure entry-level jobs in hospitality or food service for people with no formal education just by having them turn in a paper application. Now, you need at least a high school diploma — sometimes more — and face a battery of questions online before you can get in to see a human recruiter. And even then, the jobs are usually part-time, with few opportunities for advancement. Contract jobs end unpredictably, leaving people on the job market again, looking for any kind of work they can find.
Here’s how the Move Up program works: People who’ve attended enough of the monthly meetings can qualify to join, and are paired with a coach. They have to go through several soft skills training sessions, on subjects like job interviewing and conflict resolution. Then, working with community-minded employers like Ace Hardware, Jubilee looks to place the prospectives in positions that make more than $13 an hour — and in exchange, they guarantee that the applicant is motivated and job-ready.
That’s actually a different approach from typical job training programs. Most focus on simply helping people get that first job, which helps improve the headline numbers that we use to measure the health of the economy. That’s especially true in Washington D.C., where unemployment is about a point above the national average, and city hall has had enough problems spending the money it gets from the federal government on traditional job training.
"It is not common to see a program like [Move Up], here or across the country, outside a traditional apprenticeship category, or people on more traditional educational paths who are probably going to move up anyway,” says Lauren Eyster, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute who has studied D.C.’s low-wage economy.
"With this prolonged situation, people have gotten numb. They’ve internalized that something is wrong with them."
— Move Up program director Lawrence Taylor
That might also be because coaching people to prepare for the next rung on the career ladder is a high-touch process, and employer relationships take time to build. Jubilee aimed to place 60 people at “Move-up level” positions in 2015, and made it to about 40. The program’s applicant pool has ebbed from the height of the recession, when 150 people might show up for an orientation session. Now, it’s more like 50, Taylor says. But there are still people confronting significant barriers — sometimes having more to do with their confidence than their skills.
"With this prolonged situation, people have gotten numb,” Taylor says. "We’ve got more people on some kind of public assistance. They’ve internalized that something is wrong with them.”
Take Karen Bryant, 59, who was at the spaghetti dinner taking notes. She says she’s reached a management position before, only to be laid off. Now, she has a low-paying job at a hotel, and is thinking about using the Move Up program to make a change — but it’s more comfortable to stay where she is. “The problem is, I’m scared,” Bryant told other attendees, during a table discussion. “Am I the only one who’s afraid to move up because I know what it’s like where I am, and I like it? I feel like I’m underpaid, too, but money isn’t everything.”
Mark Jones, though, knew he didn’t want to spend many years mopping floors in the deli section. He’s had good-paying jobs before, but something always seemed to happen to knock him back down again. This time, he needed help staying on course to stick it out until he got promoted, to a position that entitled him to weeks of training, and a salary that would top out at around $22. For Jones, the Move Up program was more of a support group than anything else.
“I think that it helped because of staying connected with a group of people, hearing their entry level stories,” Jones says. “It just kind of gives you more hope while you’re waiting. If you’re not connected to them at all, you get kind of discouraged, and you give up.”