Boot-camp approach to work

Preparation: Nonprofit groups are invaluable in helping Baltimore's most down-and-out get jobs, and keep them.

March 28, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In a room with four framed posters labeled "ATTITUDE," Joe Jones is giving out-of-work Baltimore residents a hard time.

"Why were you here late?" he asks. "Stop," he adds, when one woman blames her three kids. He hands her the employee guidelines from a Fortune 500 company, has her read them aloud: "If you are late, you will not be admitted."

"Those of you who don't have any real determination to get a job ... you have an opportunity to leave now," Jones declares, surveying the 100 faces.

This is boot-camp employment assistance for the down-and-out, complete with the occasional "I can't hear you!"

At the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development in Northwest Baltimore, staff members recruit people off the streets, whip them into shape over three weeks and help them navigate the unfamiliar world of work for two years afterward.

As dire as unemployment is in the city, the situation would be worse if not for several dozen nonprofit groups offering job search help, basic skills instruction and other employment preparation.

Without these nonprofits and the infusion of private foundation money flowing to them, predicted Jones, president of the Northwest Baltimore center, "this city would collapse."

It's a start rather than a solution. A typical nonprofit program focusing on work force development doesn't have the resources to help more than a few hundred city residents a year, while tens of thousands are disconnected from the labor force.

The assistance doesn't always lead to happy endings, because so much has to go right in the weeks and months that follow, from child care to transportation to job openings at the proper skill level that pay enough to get by.

But nonprofits in Baltimore have increasingly been trying more intensive efforts to help residents navigate those roadblocks, convinced that job placement alone isn't enough.

"It's really important to start thinking longer-term," said Kevin Jordan, associate director for economic and community development at the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation.

The foundation recently revamped its offerings from quick basic-skills lessons and job placement because participants ended up stuck in positions with hand-to-mouth salaries. Its fledging effort helps West Baltimore residents gain financial savvy, employability and a career plan through a month-long program with longer-term follow-up.

A partnership of nonprofits led by Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake expects to start a program this spring to get selected ex-offenders into subsidized work crews 72 hours after they step out of jail to prepare them for the competitive labor market.

A year-old Catholic Charities transitional work project has participants splitting their time between people-skills training and janitorial work, giving them earnings and experience for their resumes.

"We have whole groups that don't understand what work's all about," said Molly Nash, director of employment services at St. Jude's Employment Center of Catholic Charities. "That is one of the things we're trying to teach and train - what are employer expectations, and how to meet those."

East Baltimore resident Michael Whitson, 52, who has been in the Catholic Charities program for about three months, said he lost his last steady job two years ago when he came in late twice because "I just didn't get my butt up and get to work."

He was drinking then; he has stopped, he said, and has made ends meet with temporary work and weekend car washing while he searches for something permanent.

His Catholic Charities supervisor is delighted with his work ethic.

"I've learned a lot since I've been here," Whitson said, meticulously mopping stairs inside a Northeast Baltimore church.

The Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development's in-your-face effort, which dates back to 1998, is part of a national program called STRIVE.

Participants have to dress professionally, show up on time and follow directions, all the while re-evaluating their lives to see what's preventing them from getting or keeping a job.

Colby Clark, 16, signed up for STRIVE recently because she has never been employed and needs to be. The East Baltimore resident dropped out of school to have a baby, a daughter who's now a year old.

"I'm here for experience because I'm not good on job interviews," Clark said during a break. "I get real nervous."

On the first day of the last three-week class, most participants were early, the men in ties and the women in dresses or skirts. The tardy - and the sweat-shirt-attired - were chewed out. Some who refused to smile were thrown out, though they were allowed back in after suitable soul-searching.

"I want some enthusiasm," insisted James Worthy, the center's employment training and career development manager.

Moses Hammett, the director of work force development, asked how many people had submitted 40 job applications in the past month. He was not impressed that only a few raised their hands.

"It takes work to get work," said Hammett, striding in front of the packed room. "Is it a lot to do two applications a day? Is it a lot of work? So why haven't you been doing it? If you knock on enough doors, you're going to find someone who gives you an opportunity."

A man in the back didn't believe it. Even McDonald's wouldn't hire him, he said, so who would?

"Be patient with us," Hammett said, "because we're going to get you there."

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