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Job-training Programs But No Jobs?

Mary Rose Madden

Local foundations and the federal government have promised to funnel money into Baltimore for job training programs to respond to some of the communities’ needs articulated during the weeks or protests after the death of Freddie Gray. But what happens when the jobs don’t materialize?

Take Janet Littlejohn, for example. She had a full basketball scholarship to Coppin State University right after high school.  She was working on her nursing degree until she broke her leg. She lost her scholarship and couldn’t afford tuition, so she had to drop out.

Now, she’s forty-eight, lives in West Baltimore and is unemployed. For years, she got by doing housekeeping, playing the lottery, and volunteering.  Then several years ago, she went through a job-training program.

“I learned scaffolding, how to pour concrete, how to pull up concrete, how to dig trenches, how to use different tools,” she said. “I loved it.” But when she went to transform the skills and passion into a job she hit dead ends. “No one was hiring us.  They were bringing people from outside the city here to work.   They never gave us a chance; never.”

Jermaine Jones, who organized the job-training program Littlejohn attended, says they trained 1,000 residents from the Sandtown-Wincester neighborhood in 2011. Each student finished proficient in basic construction skills and with at least a high school diploma or a GED.   And still – only a few of them found work.

Jones says it points to a bigger issue. The city has not made the commitment it should to hire locally.  Cities like Washington DC and Seattle require developers working on large city projects to hire a certain percentage of city residents, often from distressed neighborhoods.  But Jones says there’s no political will to do that in Baltimore.  “The conversation hasn’t been as aggressive as it needs to be,” he said.

City Councilman Bill Henry says City Hall has encouraged developers to hire locally, but that encouragement hasn’t had much in the way of “teeth”. “The way local hire has been dealt with mostly has been to negotiate something on a deal by deal basis,” he said; “to try to work out targets as opposed to making a law requiring you hit the targets, just not show that you tried to hit them.”

Other council members have pushed local hire bills, but they haven’t done enough, according to Ross Eisenbrey, vice-president at the Economic Policy Institute. “It’s not enough to have job creation if the jobs are going to people from the suburbs,” Eisenbrey said. The unemployment rate in the Baltimore metro area is 5.7 percent compared to Baltimore City, which stands at 8.1 percent. Throughout the weeks of protests after the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, the nation heard staggering figures such as this one. 

That’s a figure many in Baltimore want to change. A Department of Labor official says they are working with the city and state to come up with an approach in Baltimore similar to one used in Ferguson, Missouri. The department recently awarded Missouri a $5 million grant for job-training.

But Eisenbrey doubts that will be enough to help Baltimore’s approximately 50,000 unemployed. “That’s $1,000 per person,” he said. “How much training can you get for $1,000 per person?  Even if $1,000 a person were enough – training for what?  Baltimore’s fundamental problem is that there aren’t jobs.  If you train someone for x and there’s no job for x, then what have you accomplished?”

Even worse, Eisenbrey says, the goals Maryland sets for its job training graduates are extremely low – and that won’t work for the larger needs of the city.

“You can’t expect to solve poverty by training people for jobs that pay 11 or 12,000 dollars a year,” he said. “That is bound to fail.  If your goal is to put people into jobs that leave them in poverty – than you’re designing failure.”

He says city leaders need to change the business as usual mentality and create a cycle where job-training programs turn into full time, liveable wage jobs.