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Career Builder: Willie Hall hopes his certificate will lead to carpentry work. (Darrow Montgomery)

On Dec. 18, 2009, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton stood in front of a group of safety vest–clad construction apprentices to announce the biggest single economic opportunity the District has ever seen: the 16,000 construction jobs to be created by the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters on the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus in Ward 8.

“We are not going to build the biggest construction project in the United States just to have D.C. residents as onlookers,” she declared.

Six months later, Norton convened a field hearing at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE to examine whether the federal General Services Administration—and its general contractor, Clark Construction—were honoring her commitment. In a neat demonstration of how badly the neighborhood needs the work, scores of unemployed residents showed up early, thinking it was a job fair. “If something happens, it is Clark that we are going to hold responsible,” Norton told a company representative.

Norton grandstands because she has no other recourse. The District can mandate that its contractors hire locals, but the feds aren’t allowed to. GSA can merely ask contractors to, pretty please, hire locally where possible. In response, Clark set up the “Opportunities Center,” a trailer parked on the old psychiatric hospital’s campus and staffed by a full-time outreach coordinator. On the wall hangs a framed, blown-up copy of a Washington Business Journal article with the headline, “D.C. Officials Hope Locals Will Get St. Elizabeths Construction Jobs.”

A year after the launch, they’re still hoping. The latest totals aren’t exactly jaw-dropping: Of 610 total jobs, 216 are held by District residents, 89 of whom are new hires. Ward 8 contributes 63 of the D.C. resident employees, 41 of them new hires. The Opportunities Center has collected 3,000 resumes but connected just 44 people with employment.

It’s unclear how those numbers line up with the project’s expectations, since Clark and GSA have kept local hiring goals for the project private. They say they don’t want to create confusion with city projects that have legally binding quotas.

In fact, if it were being held to the city’s own legal standards, Clark would pass with flying colors. The District only requires 51 percent of new hires—not total employees—to be residents; St. Elizabeths is so far running at about two-thirds. Given the District’s dismal history of holding municipal contractors to the city’s First Source law, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

So why has Uncle Sam done so much better than city hall when it comes to meeting D.C.’s own local-hiring guidelines? The answer is a little perverse: Precisely because of the lack of statutory baselines, Norton has browbeaten Clark more than D.C. mayors typically cajole those contractors whose projects are actually paid for with local cash.

That effort hasn’t yet resulted in the thousands of jobs that Norton touted back in 2009. But the presence of a massive new federal project may yet help establish a precedent for ways District pols and nonprofits can master the heretofore confounding task of turning vast new projects into serious local jobs.

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What’s supposed to make St. Elizabeths work better than other projects is the Building Futures pre-apprenticeship program, funded by a $1.3 million grant from GSA and administered by the AFL-CIO. It’s a six-week training course that includes construction math, blueprint reading, and site visits—and practice showing up five days a week at 8 a.m.

The last class graduated this Tuesday at a ceremony in Congress Heights. Many of the graduates knew what trade they wanted to enter, from sheet metal to electrical work; all seemed upbeat about their prospects. “I feel like the Kobe Bryant of construction workers,” says Willie Hall, a Ward 8 resident who wanted to use the course to get out of data-entry jobs and become a carpenter.

Among dozens of local job training outfits, Building Futures has a good reputation among employers. It has a decent record of getting graduates hired: Of the 278 people to complete training, 182 have been placed in jobs. Of course, it helps that the program accepts only clearly motivated and literate applicants. Job development coordinator Jenna Gold seeks out open positions and advocates on her graduates’ behalf.

Usually, though, that’s not at St. Elizabeths. Only 300 unskilled-laborer jobs were available in the first stage of construction—and most of those were taken by workers whom subcontractors hired back after the massive layoffs following the 2008 building bust. There was no need to sift through the thousands of faceless applications sitting in the Opportunities Center.

“There was a lot of hype and a lot of exciting stuff going on, and then people felt let down,” Gold says. “On day one, they had hundreds of people lined up. They’re people who’re desperate for work. When you have that quantity of interest, you have to do a lot of work to find the quality candidates in that stack. There are lots of folks who aren’t going to meet a private sector contractor’s expectations.”

Further complicating things: The DHS project requires a strict background check, disqualifying anybody with recent felonies or misdemeanors—a big chunk of Ward 8’s unemployed population. Security requirements get stricter as the project advances. No wonder more and more of Gold’s graduates wind up on vastly smaller, D.C.-administered jobs like the Marriott Marquis project next to the Convention Center. Still, workforce development nonprofits have been meeting with Clark subcontractors to create an integrated pipeline that can funnel candidates into jobs and possibly reduce the negative view many private sector employers have of District workers.

The entity that’s been missing lately from this equation: the District government. Under then–Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration, the Department of Employment Services was so disorganized that it lost federal grants. Contractors flouted the First Source law at will because there were no consequences for non-compliance. District agencies often just didn’t file required reports on hiring of small and local businesses. The Workforce Investment Council, charged with coordinating a District-wide strategy, didn’t even hold meetings; non-profits operated pretty much on their own.

“Mayor Fenty was not greatly concerned with adult workforce development,” says Ward 8 Workforce Development Council executive director Allie Bird, describing how non-profits like the 60 she coordinates were basically out on their own. “So [former DOES director] Joe Walsh just followed his lead.”

That’s supposed to change with the administration of Mayor Vince Gray, who campaigned on a platform of job creation and hired new DOES director Rochelle Webb specifically for her workforce development experience. With other impending large local projects, like the redevelopment of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Poplar Point, an effective training system will be critical. “In the good old days, all you had to be was a warm body to show up and do construction,” says the AFL-CIO’s Kathleen McKirchey. “But not any more.”

Gray’s transition team recommended the creation of an independent District entity to manage all things Elizabethan. The outfit would be another way to put qualified applicants in front of contractors. But it could also be another source for some well-timed pressuring of GSA—the one thing that has helped on the project so far.

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