Jobs for poor few in a weak economy

Urban Chronicle

Employment: In Baltimore, welfare reform struggles as the market for low-income jobs grows very competitive.

March 20, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE ENTERPRISE Foundation held its inaugural conference for organizations that help poor people work their way out of poverty in 2000 -- at the tail end of an economic boom.

The foundation holds its fourth annual "Ready, Work, Grow" event today and tomorrow at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel -- with the economy struggling to gain momentum and businesses shedding workers.

"There's an old adage, `The best work-force program is a strong economy,'" said Patrick Jackson, director of Enterprise's Community Employment Alliance and organizer of the event. The conference is expected to attract several hundred representatives of nonprofit and government job agencies from around the country.

"When the going was good, it was much easier for people to get jobs," Jackson said. "Employers would have the attitude, `If you're healthy, I'll give you a shot.'

"Now, the job market's much tighter. Low-income people may be competing with people with college degrees for jobs."

A report this year for the U.S. Conference of Mayors underscores the situation. The report said the country's metropolitan areas lost nearly 650,000 jobs last year and predicted little growth this year.

At a preconference session yesterday, Philip Holmes presented a stark local perspective on the entry-level job market.

"In Baltimore, for every minimum-wage job -- $5.15 an hour -- there are two applicants," said Holmes, vice president of career development services for Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, which runs a prison-to-work employment program and temporary staffing agency. "The job market is ferociously competitive."

Problems associated with placing the nonworking poor in jobs -- or getting the working poor better jobs -- goes beyond businesses. With many states facing significant deficits, and some large foundations cutting back on grants because of losses in their stock portfolios, there are fewer resources available to job agencies, Jackson said.

"I think a conference is all the more important given the challenges out there today," Jackson said.

Based in Columbia and founded by the late Jim Rouse and his wife, Patty, Enterprise is best known for its development of affordable housing. It began the Community Employment Alliance in the mid-1990s in response to welfare reform, currently up for congressional reauthorization. The alliance works with community-based organizations to assist not only those coming off welfare but ex-offenders, ex-addicts and others who are chronically unemployed and underemployed.

Jackson sees a strong link between affordable housing and jobs.

"Affordable housing is only affordable as long as you can pay for it," he said. At the same time, "unstable housing is a big reason why folks have problems getting a job, or holding onto a job."

He gave the example of a mother evicted from her home, who has to provide a telephone number at a homeless shelter as a contact on a job application.

"For an employer to call a shelter, that's difficult," he said.

The conference features 30 workshops, on subjects ranging from employment services offered by local public housing authorities to a session on how to help job seekers who have HIV/AIDS.

Even with the increased difficulty of finding work, Jackson said, a key issue is helping people stay in a job once they get one.

"Each year, the most popular session is retention -- easy," he said. "People realize it's a gap."

Given that interest, it hardly seems to be a coincidence that the three conference recipients of the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation Workforce Awards for Excellence and accompanying $15,000 grants all boast impressive records of keeping clients in jobs. The three winners being announced today are: Larkin Street Youth Services of San Francisco; Project QUEST of San Antonio; and Transitional Work Corp. of Philadelphia.

"It's the name of the game," said Richard Greenwald, president and CEO of Transitional Work Corp., which offers extensive support and up to an $800 bonus to workers who stay on their jobs for six months. "We put a significant amount of resources -- about one-third -- into retaining people."

Project QUEST emphasizes weekly meetings to focus on workplace skills as well as targeted job training over a 16-month period, said Executive Director Mary Pena.

"One of the things we're experiencing right now is a tremendous amount of layoffs. The jobs available are being taken by those laid off. It's tougher to find a job for those in poverty," said Pena.

She said the main focus of her group is on health care, where long-term demand for jobs continues to be strong because of the aging of the population. But Pena is hopeful the economy will improve -- and with it, the environment for placing poor people in jobs.

"There are so many stereotypes around low-income people," said Pena, who has been with the organization since shortly after its inception in 1992. "What we've learned -- and continue to learn -- is that folks are looking for opportunities. They want to take care of their families."

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