Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Working Together to Get People to Work

One of the biggest challenges to the effective functioning of the District of Columbia’s workforce development system is that it really isn’t a system at all.

Let me explain.

Workforce development activities in the District are funded by no fewer than eight different federal and local funding streams. Each one of these funding streams comes with its own set of goals – and its own set of restrictions.

For example, the District’s One-Stops are funded with federal money available under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).[1] To utilize that funding, the District – through the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) – has to agree to achieve certain performance measures in a given year. These performance measures include placing a certain percentage of adults in employment, ensuring a certain percentage of those placed stay in those jobs for at least six months, and ensuring those placed earn wages above a certain level. These performance measures are subject to approval by the US Department of Labor.

The DC Jobs Council is very supportive of performance measures in principle. We believe that anyone receiving taxpayers’ money should be accountable for how it is used.

The problem is that, in order to achieve the negotiated performance standards, the One-Stops assist only the clients most likely to succeed – a practice called “creaming.” This approach appears perfectly rational: when you have limited resources, and set goals, you are going to deploy those resources in a manner that ensures you meet your goals.

But while it may appear rational, it may not be in the best interests of those District residents most in need of assistance. Tens of thousands of the District’s unemployed residents need assistance with job searches, job training, and overcoming barriers. WIA funding only helps to meet some of those needs.

But is there money somewhere to meet the other critical needs of those facing the highest barriers?

One of those barriers is literacy – or, more accurately, the lack thereof, a barrier faced by about one-third of our neighbors. Federal money for that purpose comes largely through Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, and the funding is distributed in the District via the Office of the State Superintended of Education’s Office of Adult and Family Education.

Another barrier faced by unemployed single parents is the lack of the resources to pay for basic needs while looking for a job or pursuing training. In some cases, the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) Employment Program can provide access to training for those parents who receive TANF, along with the cash assistance available to custodial parents through TANF. TANF is distributed to the District via the DC Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Income Maintenance Administration (IMA).

There are others, but you get the point. The District has access to a lot of sources of funding to facilitate workforce development, each with its own rules and regulations – and each coming through its own silo.

The DC Jobs Council has long advocated for some kind of mechanism within the District government to, at the very least, maintain a bird’s eye view of all of the activities in all of the workforce development silos. Even better would be an individual – or a group – who could actually have an impact on how the programs in these silos interact and – potentially – cooperate.

That’s why we were thrilled when Councilmember Michael A. Brown, chairman of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, convened a workgroup to discuss just how to facilitate this kind of cooperation – to start the work necessary to break down the silos. Brown and his staff invited representatives from advocacy organizations, think tanks, philanthropy, and service providers to meet and talk candidly about the silos.

Brown and his staff also invited representatives from the District agencies whose work has an impact on workforce development – DOES, DHS IMA, and OSSE’s Office of Adult and Family Education. But not one agency representative showed up. One agency representative had intended to join the meeting, but was told at the last minute she should not attend. One agency staffer simply refused, while another did not respond to the invitation. (However, to give credit where it is due, a representative from the Community College of the District of Columbia did attend.)

The workgroup will meet again in the near future. It is our understanding that agency representatives will be invited again. We hope they will attend.

Working together is the only way to ensure we can get every District resident back to work.

[1] By statute, the District’s Workforce Investment Council (WIC) is responsible for overseeing how DC spends its WIA funding. However, the DC WIC is not designed to oversee or coordinate programs funded by other sources. We will address the WIC in more detail in a future blog post.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Five Not-So-Easy Barriers

One of the biggest stories in the media today is the high unemployment rate. This story resonates across the country. But here in the District of Columbia, the 9.8 percent unemployment rate means something a bit different because we are talking about our friends and neighbors. Everyone knows someone – or several someones – struggling to find work, sometimes for a year or more. In Wards 7 and 8, circumstances are even worse. By some estimates, the unemployment rate in Ward 8 may exceed 30 percent.

Many District residents, especially those living in the eastern part of the city, are particularly challenged to find employment because they face barriers that appear almost insurmountable. Even if folks do find work, they are challenged to keep jobs because of these barriers. Here, in no particular order, are five of the barriers to employment DC residents encounter most frequently.

1. Literacy – According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), approximately 37 percent of DC adults score at the “below basic” level of literacy. This means that more than one-third of our neighbors have difficulty reading well enough to complete an employment application, or doing math well enough to measure out a pound of turkey on a scale in the deli department of the local supermarket. Add to this a lack of computer literacy and it is clear why so many are having trouble finding employment.

2. Criminal Record – The District welcomes more than 2,500 individuals home from incarceration each year, and the overwhelming majority face employment challenges. In many cases, the simple presence of a criminal record is enough to disqualify someone from consideration for a job. Even convictions unrelated to the job – for felony intent to distribute narcotics by someone seeking a position in the stockroom of a big box store, for example – often knock otherwise-qualified individuals out of contention.

3. Lack of “Soft” Skills – We hear this from employers all the time: bring us people who will show up on time, work well with co-workers, and accept supervision, and we will train them for specific jobs. But so many of the District’s unemployed residents lack these so-called “soft” skills, either because people were never taught these skills in the first place, or because they lack the work history which might have sharpened them. The children of those adults whom the DC public school system has failed over the last several decades are particularly vulnerable; their parents never learned these skills themselves, and are therefore unable to teach their children.

4. Child Care – Affordable, quality child care is difficult to find in the District, even for parents with means. The market rate for child care in DC has doubled over the past five years. Consider this: according to Wider Opportunities for Women’s forthcoming Basic Economic Security Tables Index, a single person can be economically secure throughout his or lifetime with an income of approximately $31,656 a year. But to be economically secure, the single parent of one infant needs to earn more than $57,000 a year. The difference in those amounts is largely due to the cost of child care and taxes paid on the extra income devoted to childcare. Quality and accessibility are also challenges, especially in neighborhoods on the eastern side of the District, and for those parents who work hours other than 9-to-5.

5. Transportation – While WMATA boasts – and correctly – that more than 90 percent of addresses in the District are served by at least one bus line, the transportation system in the District remains a barrier to employment, particularly for residents in Wards 7 and 8. Many entry-level, low-barrier jobs – in construction or hospitality, for example – require employees to arrive at work very early, or to work late. Bus schedules are not always accommodating of non-standard hours. Recent increases in Metro and bus fares make transportation an even greater challenge for low-income residents. And car ownership is often out of reach for low-income residents; even a donated car must be filled with gas and insured.

It is clear that job training alone is not sufficient to fully address the unemployment challenges faced by our most vulnerable neighbors. Supportive services can help ensure unemployed residents can find and keep jobs. Creative and cooperative efforts among businesses, the District and federal governments, and nonprofits can reduce the impact of these barriers. Such efforts can, in essence, turn tens of thousands of unemployed citizens into taxpayers. These taxpayers, in turn, will contribute to the District’s coffers and those of their neighborhoods, climb the ladder to self-sufficiency, and help prepare themselves and their children for good jobs in a growing economy.

The DC Jobs Council is part of Defeat Poverty DC, a is a coalition of organizations and residents in the District of Columbia working to bring greater focus during the 2010 election season and beyond to the damaging effects of poverty on our entire city. DCJC embraces Defeat Poverty’s three-pronged approach to ending poverty: (1) make work possible; (2) make work pay; and (3) make basic needs affordable.

Monday, August 2, 2010

DC's $4.6M Local Adult Job Training Money -- What's the Status?

Welcome to WORK IN THE CITY, the blog of the DC Jobs Council!

In this, our first post, we thought we’d tell you a story. It is not a terribly happy story, and it is complicated – but it is important this story be told. We hope that you can help us write the ending.

In May 2009, Councilmember Marion Barry, then chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia’s Committee on Housing and Workforce Development (CHWFD), moved approximately $5.4M in local funds from the DC Department of Employment Services’ (DOES) budget to support job training programs offered by community-based organizations to those adults facing the highest barriers to employment. This funding would be used to train more than the 50,000 underemployed or unemployed DC residents who struggle every day to make ends meet. Language in the FY2010 Budget Support Act of 2009 specified how that funding was to be distributed and spent – on programs that trained hard-to-employ District adults for good, career-ladder jobs in industries with strong prospects for growth.

Finally, we thought, those who needed the most help were going to get it. Like most jurisdictions around the country, the District was going to put its own money into training its own residents for jobs. We hoped this effort would help address the unemployment rate, but also help us begin to change this statistic: more than 70 percent of jobs in the District are held by those who live outside of Washington.

With the horse-trading that is part of any District budget process, the amount that eventually made its way into the DOES budget for adult job training was $4.6M. That money was available to spend as of October 1, 2009.

It is now the beginning of August 2010. And none of the money has been spent. According to CFO$ource, the money is still sitting – unencumbered – in DOES’ account. No RFPs, asking for proposals from organizations that provide job training to District adults, have been issued.

When questioned by the current CHWFD chairman, Michael A. Brown, in May 2010, DOES Director Joseph P. Walsh promised that the $4.6M would be spent as intended – on job training for those adults facing the highest barriers. He explained that the local funds had not been spent yet because DOES was concentrating on spending federal funds allocated to the District through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – funds which had an earlier expiration date. But he assured Councilmember Brown that the local funds would be spent by fiscal year end, and as directed.

That was nearly five months ago. While DOES has issued grants based on four RFPs funded with federal money, we are still waiting for one RFP using local money.

This delay has not gone unnoticed.

During negotiations regarding the FY2011 District budget, several Councilmembers asked about the $4.6M. When informed that it had not yet been spent –and that DOES had not even indicated how or when it might be spent --two Councilmembers sprang into action.

Councilmember Kwame Brown, for example, proposed that DOES issue an RFP so narrowly drawn that only one nonprofit in the District is eligible for the funding. (This is not an uncommon practice in the post-Council-earmark era. We’ll leave a discussion of the pros and cons for another post.)

But the problem remains. Even a narrowly-drawn RFP has to be issued and proposals reviewed before even the $2.25M can be spent. And that has not happened.

And if the remaining money -- which could be as much as $2.35M -- is not spent, Councilmember Barry has plans for that. He has proposed to allocate the remaining funds to the Community College of the District of Columbia. While we welcome the institution – a very necessary component of a strong workforce development system -- a community college cannot substitute for a community-based job training provider for those District adults who need training most – those facing the highest barriers to employment, including low literacy levels, criminal records, and physical and mental health challenges. The Community College is not designed to meet the needs of these most challenged residents.

It is now the beginning of August 2010. Despite repeated requests to DOES, neither the DC Jobs Council nor several of its members have received any concrete answers as to plans for the $4.6M.

If a process is not implemented immediately, it is possible – even likely -- that funds set aside to help move the most vulnerable of DC residents into jobs will either disappear or be diverted.

The fiscal year ends in roughly 60 days. What do you think we should do next? How can we ensure a happy ending to this story for those who need resources the most?