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In advance of Vince Gray’s inauguration, ideas have been pouring forth on ways to rectify the District’s most glaring contradiction: While our economy is doing relatively well, you wouldn’t know it by looking at our 10 percent unemployment rate.
The city has various initiatives to match current residents with the new jobs created here: An array of job training programs through the Department of Employment Services, a new community college, and a requirement that at least half of construction jobs on projects with District funding go to District residents.
As we now know well, builders have flouted that law with impunity, generating righteous outrage from politicians. Councilmember Michael Brown has said the failure to hire D.C. residents comes from an unfounded perception that they are somehow inferior to the (more frequently Latino) workers who come from Maryland and Virginia.
The companies, though, say that’s basically true: They can’t find qualified people here. Employers at last week’s jobs summit told Gray as much, complaining that disjointed job training programs don’t produce workers with the kind of skills they’re looking for.
And you can be sure that the construction industry is pushing for a loosening of the rules in the next administration. In a recent issue of the D.C. Building Industry Association’s newsletter, super-lobbyist Rod Woodson laid out their perspective.
“First Source has come to be regarded overwhelmingly by impacted employers as unduly burdensome, adversarial and essentially irrelevant to the larger issues of resident unemployment,” he writes, complaining that DOES referrals are rarely ready to work. His main point: It’s not the industry’s job to cure unemployment. First Source, Woodson says, absolves the city of its responsibility to prepare people for an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
“The real issue, then, is not how to hire a productive workforce, but how to create one,” he writes. “Take care of that, and the hiring part becomes manageable. Fail at that, and nothing happens.”
Representatives from labor recognize the problems with job readiness. But they’ll also argue that people who focus on economic development should try to attract businesses that match the workforce—like light manufacturing and retail—rather than just count on community colleges to turn out tech workers and accountants overnight.
“If folks can’t get jobs because they don’t have the skills, what does it matter how high paying they are?” asks one labor leader, rhetorically. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think attracting a business, any business, is going to solve the problem.”
While government, employers, and labor blame each other for the problem, a new report out from Brown’s Housing and Workforce Development Committee says that both sides are at fault for failing to coordinate through frameworks set up long ago to solve these kinds of problems.
The Workforce Investment Council, for example, was set up 12 years ago to manage federal investment in job development programs with input from government, educational institutions, community-based non-profits, and business. But even though meetings have been convened regularly, business groups have been slow to participate, and the WIC hasn’t had any staff for the last year and a half, leaving a senior DOES official in charge of a group that’s supposed to be independent.
“These structural and HR issues,” the report reads, “coupled with the current Mayor’s disregard for the WIC as a core advisor, have led to the WIC’s lack of meaningful role in planning and oversight.”
Translation: The group that exists for the purpose of connecting District residents with jobs has been almost completely ineffective. And the fault lies with everybody.
The good news is that the various factions are starting to find a few points of agreement. Brown’s committee report, for example, recommends that First Source requirements be relaxed for projects under $300,000, and enforcement ramped up for those over $1 million—getting rid of onerous, dubiously effective elements of the law in order to focus on the bigger fish. When laws are clear, fair, and uniformly enforced, the business community will stop thinking of resident hiring requirements as something they could get around if they tried hard enough.
While the prominent symbolism of D.C. Chamber of Commerce director Barbara Lang and AFL-CIO Chairman Jos Williams sharing a dais with the Mayor Elect at last week’s job summit doesn’t constitute progress in itself, it at least sets the mood.