Bridges to Work takes new direction Howard job program attracts retail, not blue-collar workers

November 09, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

It seemed to be an ideal match: a federally funded program that brings residents in East Baltimore by van to low-wage jobs in warehouses and distribution centers along the U.S. 1 corridor in Howard County.

But three months after the Bridges to Work program was launched, workers aren't in the targeted jobs. Instead, they are largely working in the two new shopping centers in the county, Long Gate Center in Ellicott City and Columbia Crossing, where stores and restaurants are scrambling to fill $6- to $10-an-hour jobs.

"What sparked our interest in the program was the idea of filling those entry-level, blue-collar jobs along U.S. 1," said Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "But there are labor shortages in the service and retail sector, and those jobs are being filled due to this program."

Although job openings are common at the 60 or so companies along U.S. 1, the program has not failed, Story said.

"It's not good. It's not bad. It's just different," he said.

Of the 31 Baltimore residents transported daily into Howard, four work at Red River Barbecue and Grill and two at Target, both at Columbia Crossing. Six work at the KFC restaurant and one works at Pizzeria Uno, both at Long Gate.

Eleven work at the Lorien Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, four at Blimpie's, and one at Logotel Inc., all in Columbia. Two work at the Maryland Food Distribution Center in Jessup, which is the only business along U.S. 1 participating in the program.

The concept behind Bridges to Work is to match low- and moderate-wage workers in job-poor East Baltimore who have no transportation, with employers in job-rich suburbs, where expensive housing makes it nearly impossible for blue-collar workers to live. The median household income in Howard is about $64,000, the highest in Maryland.

Bridges to Work has four other programs across the country -- in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Denver -- operated by Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia. The national effort will cost $17 million over four years, primarily paid by the federal government. Private sources and local governments also contribute.

In Baltimore, workers are picked up near their homes, driven to jobs and returned near their homes. The service is free for one month; after that, riders pay $4 a day. They can take the vans for 18 months, at which time Bridges to Work will help them get financing for a car.

But the $4-a-day rides could continue as long as the worker is employed in the program's destination area, said Scot T. Spencer, deputy director of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, which administers Bridges to Work.

Three vans transport the program's 60 participants. Half work in Anne Arundel, the others in Howard. In its first 18 months, the program is expected to support 400 workers.

Bridges to Work has received $2.2 million to fund the program through the year 2000. Targeting low-income workers from East Baltimore who do not own cars distinguishes the program from services that help commuters.

The Howard County Office of Commuter Assistance is developing a shuttle system from the Maryland Rail Commuter service train station in Jessup to the U.S. 1 corridor. BWI Partnership -- an economic development group for Howard and Anne Arundel counties -- is running shuttle services from commuter train stops in Jessup and Dorsey to blue-collar jobs along U.S. 1 and east Columbia's Gateway Commerce Center.

About 300 workers a week use the shuttle service, says Neil Shpritz, executive director of the partnership.

Linda Stewart Byrd, director of Bridges to Work, said the program has more job orders -- including some from U.S. 1 employers -- than participants. Generally, she said, the number of job offers from distribution centers along the Howard portion of U.S. 1 has not been overwhelming.

"It would be great to get people all around the U.S. 1 corridor, but it takes time," Byrd said. "We have a staff of five, and we're trying to get people placed anywhere we can.

"We're still developing relationships" with U.S. 1 employers, she said.

And the need remains, some U.S. 1 employers said, but they are finding their own solutions.

A branch of the Boise Cascade Corp., an office product distribution company in Elkridge, relies on employee referrals to fill job openings, said Sharon Carmody, the company's senior human resources specialist.

Employees get a bonus if they recommend a hire who stays with the company at least six months. And because employees may recommend relatives and friends, it may be easy to start a car pool, she said, solving transportation issues.

Barbara Brown, a human resources coordinator with W. D. Class, a produce company in Jessup, applauded Bridges to Work but said warehouse work is too demanding for many people, especially those who may have spotty work histories.

"Maybe they should start some people off with gentler work," she said.

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