The Gray administration’s Department of Employment Services had a bit of a rough start, after the mayor had to fire his first pick for the top job. His second pick, Lisa Mallory, has fared substantially better. While the President tries to get a jobs bill passed, Mallory is pleading with employers to forget what negative stereotypes they might have had about District residents—not to mention her own agency. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation last week (and here are the rest in the series).
You’ve got a voluminous resume, but not many years in District government, right?
I was here full time back with Anthony Williams, with former city administrator Robert Bobb, and that was around 2004. I had worked with Robert Bobb in the past because he knew about the consulting firm I was working with, Public Strategies Group, and he also knew about the work I had done in the federal government with reinventing government. So he wanted to put together a similar structure in the District government, which we did, called the Center for Innovation and Reform, to bring together a group of District employees and get them to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we have in the city. So I set that up for him. But right after that, then there was an election.
Did the Center have any real impact?
There were some improvements. DCRA in those times was very troubled. DCRA has come around full circle, and is being very responsive to customers with these wonderful centers that Director Majett has in place. You don’t hear about a lot of the challenges you used to hear about before. The other piece was the Office of Contracting and Procurement. During those times, we were underperforming in terms of the payments to vendors, and a lot of organizations didn’t want to work with the District government because it took so long for us to pay them. Now OCP has continued to have its challenges, but I’ve seen marked improvement.
What drew you from a cushy consulting job back to District government?
I’ve worked in public service for over 25 years, so I’ve always had that public sector interest. When I was doing private sector consulting, it was always for the public sector, and I felt that even though it was quite lucrative, I didn’t have my hands on being able to actually wrestle with the challenges, I was just up in the consulting world, and had teams going out doing certain things. This gives me the opportunity to really solve some of the pressing challenges. On a daily basis, we see the impact. It’s amazing.
First real question: What are the root causes of the District’s massive unemployment disparity?
One of the things that we’ve noticed is that the employers have had negative experiences with the workforce, or even with DOES in particular, and they have been running that bad movie in their heads, and they were not aware of some of the incentives that we have in place, the resources we have in place, the broad diversity of individuals that we have in our pool, in all of our wards, and particularly in 5, 7 and 8. There have been a lot of improvements. And so what we’re trying to do is get these employers to take a look at this pool of readily available individuals who are eager to work…Our goal is to be the premier source of employees. We want them to look at us first when they’re looking for employees.
When you took the reins, what did you think needed to be fixed about DOES?
One was the Summer Youth Employment Program, which has received a lot of attention in the press. In the past, DOES has overspent the budget. There were so many young people, and they needed this support, so we had to take a look as a government at what we provide for our youth during the summer, it’s not just the SYEP. Our program was much smaller based on the budget this year, which was a challenge, because we knew we had a whole bunch of people who wanted to get served. But we also knew that we wanted to make it a more significant experience, really prepare them for the workforce, not just an experience where they sit in front of a computer surfing the internet. So we matched them with career interests, we had interviews for them, we had them submit their resume, and the feedback has been tremendous. Both the employers and the youth really enjoyed the experience.
Our youth programs in general are another. We’ve had some challenges about how the contracts were put in place, meeting performance measures that the US Department of Labor puts in place for us. We have been underperforming for quite some time. We’ve had some challenges in terms of just being responsive, in customer service, throughout the agency. Ensuring that we answer the phone in a timely manner. Everybody now has been trained in customer service.
There are a lot of modernization efforts underway, trying to put technology in place to ensure that we’re basically able to do more with less. We’re putting debit cards in place so we’re no longer sending out checks. Our resources are dwindling—we get a lot of federal dollars, and those are going down.
How much of DOES’ budget is federal?
It varies, but it can be at one time as much as 60 percent.
What professional fields have the greatest potential for resident employment?
There are opportunities around home health care, in technology, hospitality. In the past, we got very excited about green jobs, but I think the economic crisis has been a bit of a challenge, in that a lot of these big projects where we would see these recovery dollars coming from have now ended, so those opportunities are not as plentiful or as strong as we thought they would originally be. But it’s gonna come back, because it’s something that we all need to look at.
Oh—you think green jobs didn’t live up to the hype?
When I was working at a consulting company called ICF, we realized that this is a real viable area, but it also takes money to retrofit your home so that it’s green, it takes money to build LEED certified buildings, because there are not as many of them, the supplies are more expensive right now because the market isn’t doing its thing where it decreases the prices so it’s much more affordable for folks to buy the green kit to retrofit their homes. But I think it’ll come back, because I think it’s something that has to happen.
Back to the employer question. How do you get businesses, nonprofits, and government to stop playing that “bad movie” in their heads about hiring District residents?
One thing I’ve noticed is that people haven’t engaged DOES in that conversation. So now we’re having those conversations with the employers, and they’re willing to listen. But we have to meet them and their requirements. So that’s why the Mayor has started this initiative, which is called One City One Hire, which we unveiled this week. The employers come to us, we ask them to hire one District resident, and we need to be able to provide that individual. If we get them very excited, and they’re not able to hire that one employee that they can actually feel good about, then we haven’t done our job. So that’s what we’re focused on doing.
How much is that initiative going to cost?
These wage subsidies are already in place, we get grants. For example, we have the transitional employment program that runs all the time, we take reentering citizens and work with them and help others that also have barriers to employment by getting them work ready, putting them through a program with work experience that’s subsidized. We have a senior program that’s subsidized by the US Department of Labor. A lot of these programs are already in place, but the employers didn’t necessarily know about them. We’re really excited about this program through the Department of Labor called the on-the-job training grant. It provides up to 90 percent of a wage subsidy [for a worker] that you will commit to hiring after you’ve trained them, for up to six months. To me, that’s like a no-brainer.
This is a pilot grant to us. If we don’t use that money—we were a little challenged in getting employers to sign up—they will take that money back. Historically, the District government has sent money back, and we don’t want to do that, that just doesn’t make any sense in this economy.
Do you see more corporate partnerships like the one where Walmart paid $3 million to start a retail training program at the University of the District of Columbia?
We would love that, and I know our partners at the UDC would be open to that as well. There’s opportunity to do that in every sector. In construction, you can do that. We can partner with hospitals around some of their needs. We want to have a technological corridor in Ward 8 around on of our developments. You could do that in any industry, if you could get the corporate support.
The mayor has been touting a pilot program that pays contractors extra to hire District residents, rather than simply punishing them for failing to comply with First Source. Which do you think works better?
To be honest, and I’m usually pretty exacting about this, but I think it’s a combination of both. There are some employers that want to comply. There are some people who are not paying attention to what they’re supposed to do, and they’ve been able to get away with it. And there are some people who needed to be encouraged to come to us, so maybe incentives would work. So the Mayor is looking at the First Dource law, and Councilmember Brown is looking at it as well, to figure out what sorts of enhancements we can put in place.
Who are the people in this database that you’re trying to get employers to use?
I know we have 30,000 individuals in that system, and not all of them are unemployed, but most of them are. I want to verify this and make sure it’s right, but in excess of 50 percent of the people in the database have a bachelor’s degree. I was pleasantly surprised, although we have job opportunities for individuals who don’t have that level of education.
What part does entrepreneurship play in your training offerings?
I’m so glad you asked that question. We really need to provide entrepreneurship training to people who find themselves unemployed. A lot of our District residents had maybe a brush with the law and are finding it difficult to find employment. And a lot of people don’t want to work for somebody else. So we want to have this as one of the options, so in the new fiscal year, we will be providing through our transitional employment program, we will be putting out a request for proposals for entrepreneurial training as one of the options. If you go through our program, you get your business plan in place, you get some seed money, we can even help you with the next step of getting subsidized employees to your viable company. Match them up with big businesses, have mentoring opportunities.
Do you spend much of your day actually interacting with unemployed people?
Yeah, I would say it’s about 50 percent of the time. I go to One Stops all the time, talking to people. That’s the nature of the job, I have to be aware of what’s going on. I’ve gone through many of these things myself. I’ve had multiple jobs, I’ve had to retrain, I’ve been downsized, all that. None of this is new to me. But I like to be focused on the community. I’m so accessible that people are like, ‘who is that?,’ talking to people when I go to buy a hamburger. People come to me, ‘I just got out of jail, how can I help them,’ and their resumes are crumpled, and I’m trying to help them make copies of their resumes and put them in our programming and get apprenticeship opportunities. But that’s just me, it’s nothing new.
Did you watch the President’s jobs speech?
I watched some of it. I had a challenge with my daughter. But I read the text. [Mallory, who lives in 16th Street Heights, has “several” children between the ages of nine and 31 years old].
What did you think?
I was very encouraged by the President’s tone, and by his plan and his vision. We can’t wait for 14 months to figure out what we’re going to do about this. I go to these jobs fairs, and you walk by and you see the line of people, and you know that there are only a handful of jobs. And you see the desperation. They can’t pay their rent. They don’t have money to eat. We need to provide some kind of support for these individuals. And the president has a bold plan in place, and I would beg the Congress to pass the plan, as I guess the president said, what, 17 times? Because we have to do something. We have this bickering going on, and people are suffering. It’s criminal.
Given that the District doesn’t have the resources to just give people work, how are you going to get District employers to hire local?
First of all, let’s not let the federal government off the table. I was a fed for 20 years. This notion that our district residents can’t qualify for these jobs, I don’t buy that for a minute. So the federal government, these are my pals, but they need to step up to the plate. I think that John Berry at the Office of Personnel Management has done a great job of streamlining the convoluted process of applying for a federal job that takes a candidate months. I was a part of it, I used to hire people, but say I interview Christina, and she’s great, but by the time she got through the morass, when I call her in nine months when I’ve figured it out, she’s gone somewhere else. And that’s what always happens in the federal government. Now they just require a resume. We need to do more with the so they see DOES as a resource, because there are so many people who come into the district every day, work at a federal job, and then go out. So that needs to change.
Would you work with a Virginia or Maryland employer?
Absolutely! As long as a District resident gets a job! They could commute to Reston, to Baltimore, to West Virginia. It’s a job. And many of our people do not have jobs. We need to be creative about transportation subsidies. I was talking to the Board of Trade about that. Our residents need to realize that you may have to get on the metro. It’s taken me, at times, an hour and a half to commute to work. But that’s just the reality. You want a good job? You’re going to have to do certain things. We are in the business of empowering and no longer enabling.