For D.C. based author and illustrator Juana Medina, learning English in her native Columbia was a requirement she resisted as a child, yet appreciated later as an adult.
Finding a good job in the District of Columbia during a recession isn’t easy. But when you’re a high school dropout, an ex-offender, or someone who’s already living hand-to-mouth, it can be even harder to get into the job market. We’ll look at some of the programs working to lower the unemployment rate for the District’s poorest residents.
- Edith Westfall Deputy Director, Center for Workforce Strategies, Community College of the District of Columbia
- Elijah Moses Director of Career Development, Sasha Bruce Youth Build
- Eric Scott Program Manager, D.C. Department of Employment Services
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back to our look at jobs and job training. We turn now from a national perspective to a local one, specifically, the perspective of those at the bottom of D.C.'s economic ladder. Those who've dropped out of school or spent time incarcerated or are living hand-to-mouth. For these job seekers, the challenges of finding work during a recession are even more daunting.
INTERVIEWERJoining us to talk about these challenges and the best ways to get these workers into the local job market is Elijah Moses, director of career development with Sasha Bruce Youth Build. That's a program that trains young people in carpentry and also prepares them to take their GEDs. Elijah Moses, thank you for joining us.
MR. ELIJAH MOSESThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Eric Scott, program manager with the D.C. Department of Employment Services. Eric Scott, good to have you here.
MR. ERIC SCOTTGood afternoon.
NNAMDIAnd Edith Westfall, deputy director of the Center for Workforce Strategies in the Community College of the District of Columbia. Edith Westfall, thank you for joining us.
MS. EDITH WESTFALLThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAs we said earlier, if you're a job seeker in Washington D.C. and trying to find out exactly what to do, now is the time to call or to share your experience with us at 800-433-8850. Edith, the District of Columbia has more doctors, lawyers and engineers than we can count. But it's also got a very different category of jobseeker. Describe, if you would, the typical person who comes to you looking for help getting a job.
WESTFALLThanks, Kojo. The...
NNAMDIAnd the same question later for our other two guests.
WESTFALLOkay. One of the interesting things about D.C. is that 38 percent of the population has about a bachelors degree or above, 33 percent of the population is functionally illiterate. The people who come in to Workforce Development programs typically are at the sixth-grade reading level and above. That's sort of the floor of what you can effectively be at if you want to take a Workforce Development training program. They are typically unemployed or underemployed. A lot of them have jobs that are just 10 hours a week. Some of them have been unemployed for years and are looking for a way to get out. They want to work.
NNAMDIHow about you, Eric Scott? Who are the people who typically come to your organization looking for help getting a job?
SCOTTWell, we're looking at a wide range of individuals as, you know, the economy has taken a huge hit. So, of course, we're looking at the people who are coming to entry-level positions, first time job seekers, people who have not worked for some years, and we have to focus on them. But we also have a higher employment role as well and the unemployment rate is going down. However, we have a lot of individuals who are - or skilled, have degrees and are out of work now. And they're looking to get back into the workforce either in the same positions and the same careers that they were in, or they're looking to have to try to transfer to other careers.
NNAMDIElijah Moses, the people who typically come to you looking for help.
MOSESWell, Youth Build general is a program that I would like to refer to anyone who is not aware of it is the nonresidential version of job core. And our population, directly that we service, is 18 to 24-year olds who are District residents. So we have a large amount of residents who attempt to get into our program. We probably recruit about six or 700 a year. But as Edith was saying, they have to be able to score at a sixth-grade level, which sometimes is a challenge for our residents in the District who can't meet that standard. So that probably chops the number at least in half. And out of those, those are the ones that we're able to at least facilitate. Some are at the next steps in the process to...
NNAMDIThat's the education aspect of it. Talk about the life experience aspect of it. What are some of the life experiences that these young people bring with them to Sasha Bruce?
MOSESHonestly, I can say a good -- over 70 percent have never had a job before. So when it comes out to filling out a resume, I'm looking at a blank sheet of paper and trying to come up with very creative ways to conjure up different ways that they have, or even things that they've done in the time passed that they can use for workforce experiences. Some of that can include church activities, volunteering, walking the neighbor's dog, shoveling snow, all that thing -- all of those can be translated into a job experience. But that population that we work with doesn't always have a lot of job experience at all.
NNAMDIYour program trains these young people for careers in construction. Tell us about how you choose the people who participate in the program and the kind of training they get.
MOSESVery interesting. We have a five-step process. The first step process is the application process. You come fill out the application. The next step is the TABE test, the basic adult education test. You have to again, as I said, score at 6th grade level. From that step, we move to an interview process. We do -- where we invite them to a panel-style interview. And it's about five people. We tell them, you know, kind of prepare for an interview. We sit down with them, gauge their ability to work with us for nine months because it is a nine-month program, and gauge their wherewithal and what they can bring to the table. Because at the end of the program, we have not only a desire to help them, but we have to be able to ensure that we can match them with opportunities.
MOSESAfter that step, we have orientation process that is a week long. After the orientation process, we can gauge how many people actually showed up on time. We probably bring about 70 people to the orientation process -- how many shows up on time, how many caused trouble, how many walk out, what are they able to do within that week -- tell us. And after that, we do a three-day boot camp retreat. We'll bring an outside group called Respect for Life. It's kind of a military-style retreat that also encompasses workshops, a lot of encouragement and road climbing, et cetera, team building exercises. And after that, we select who we want in the program.
NNAMDIWhat kind of success have you had with placing young people in construction jobs over the past three years? While riding around the city, I've noticed that in addition to the people who are either identifiable as immigrants or second generation immigrants, I'm seeing an increasing number of younger African Americans, and I often wonder if they come out to your program.
MOSESI can't say that all of them do. I can say that we just -- we are -- our report is due to the Department of Labor on Monday. Our job placement rate right now is 91 percent. Our overall -- that was for this quarter. And the overall placement rate is at 76 percent, as we speak now. So...
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about jobs and job training in the District of Columbia with Elijah Moses, director of career development with Sasha Bruce Youth Build, which trains young people in carpentry and prepares them to take their GEDs and places them in construction jobs. Eric Scott is a program manager with the D.C. Department of Employment Services and Edith Westfall is deputy director of the Center for Workforce Development -- for Center for Workforce Strategies at the Community College of the District of Columbia. You can call us at 800-433-8850 with your own story or question. Edith, tell us about the training that the Community College of D.C. provides for city residents.
WESTFALLFor workforce development, there's such a wide range of what we provide. We have courses that go for one semester. And then we have programs that have -- vary in lengths of time. And we focus all of our trainings around four growth areas. Well, areas that are hiring, even if they're not growing a lot -- construction and property management, hospitality and tourism, allied health in nursing and administrative technologies. Within those, we run programs that range from -- we have a short program that's two days for professional food handling, which is a barrier to many jobs in -- child care food service, et cetera, to longer term programs that go for a year, medical office assistant. One of the ones we have going now, just a fabulous program, is a team meeting up with DDOT, which D.C. Department of Transportation...
WESTFALL...to do a 10-week pre-apprenticeship highway construction program. And one of the things that we really like about this program is it merges technical and academic training into one 10-week period. It's a really wide range of students, predominantly African American. That's about a third of the class has -- are reentering citizens and it's just a great group of people. And we're hoping the last class that DOES run had a 100 percent placement in the construction jobs. So we are hoping to replicate that.
NNAMDISo some of the kids I'm seeing might be from your program also. (laugh)
WESTFALLYes. Or it might have come from DOES program from last 12, yeah.
NNAMDIBut this question -- for all of you before I get back to the telephone, for people at the bottom of the career ladder in the District of Columbia, what kinds of skills are they typically lacking? Or to put it another way, what are the skills that employers come to you saying that they need help finding? First you, Eric Scott.
SCOTTWell, we actually work closely with employers in the District of Columbia. And one of the things that we're doing now is definitely, not only work with the employers to find out what positions they have available, but what are they looking for in the people that they actually hire, because it's very important that we convey that to the citizens of the District. So one of the things is, of course, we always look at the skill levels and the skill sets, the hard skills, depending on what type of job it is. But the most important thing is just the work readiness. And that's what we really have to focus on, work readiness, that you're ready to come to work, to get up every day, be at work on time, your presentation skills, your ability for critical thinking and things of that nature. But the biggest issue that employers say that they're looking for are individuals who are work-ready.
NNAMDIIn your case, Elijah?
MOSESI say the same thing. Our program focuses on four different types of soft skills. We actually had a meeting -- we actually had a works partnership meeting. We brought all of our partner -- not all of them, but a decent amount of our partners together to talk about some of the successes in hiring. But we find very consistently that there are about four to five major themes. The first one would be punctuality. Without any doubt, you have to have people who are punctual to work, and especially when you're looking at District residents, who are, maybe Ward 7 and 8, who maybe have not have a lot of job experiences, and especially if they've dropped out of high school. You...
NNAMDII know a lot of people listening right now are saying, punctuality?
NNAMDIWhat's up with that? Doesn't everybody know you have to be on time for a job?
MOSESNo, they don't. If you left high school and you skipped class half the time and now you're hunting for a job and you have never mastered the ideal of actually have to be somewhere, or if you're coming from an environment where you're parents never really showed up on time, and you really won't have a accurate ideal of what it is to show up on time. So we actually instituted a one-minute rule. You show up to our site one minute late, then we'll probably gonna ask you to work for free today or go home for today because the students are paying. That actually transitioned into people who are supposed to be there 7:00 in the morning being there at 6:40 in the morning. So now when I'm going to an employer, I can say, hey, I can guarantee you he's gonna be there. And that has worked out. So that's one thing, the punctuality, showing up on time.
MOSESThe other thing is clean urine. A lot of times before I even -- I just got off the phone with someone at (unintelligible) before I came over here, and I need to test somebody's urine before I send them anywhere because I did not -- I don't want Sasha Bruce Youth Build or any other workforce development program in the District stained with, oh, we can't. They're not ready. And that's one thing that they define as work readiness. And real quickly, the other two is hard work ethic, you know, good attitude, really wanna work hard. I hear stories of people who can't pull cable for an hour because their arm hurts or something. You're getting paid $16 an hour. Work hard as you can because that's -- you don't get those opportunities with a high school diploma or GED all the time.
NNAMDILet me go onto the phone. Here is Kristen in Washington, D.C. Kristen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KRISTENYes, I have a question. I'm wondering about the folks who have gotten too discouraged with literacy and learning to read and just aren't ever gonna pass that sixth grade level. If somebody's in that boat, what kind of jobs are out there for them?
NNAMDIOr what kind of alternatives can you recommend for such a person? First you, Edith Westfall.
WESTFALLThe kinds of jobs that someone could get at that level are frankly just not that good. They're not gonna be family-sustaining wages, unfortunately.
WESTFALLD.C. has, through OSSE, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education, some wonderful adult literacy and family literacy programs. So someone who tests below the sixth grade would typically get referred to one of those programs. And the sixth grade limit is not a matter of being elitist and saying that this is arbitrary standard...
WESTFALL...studies show that that's the level of literacy that helps you understand the word problems. And if you can't understand the word problems, you're gonna have problems in the workplace. So those are the two things, you're not gonna get a really great family-sustaining job and OSSE has fabulous programs.
NNAMDIWho has fabulous programs?
WESTFALLOSSE. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education has wonderful programs. They fund them very well. They do a lot of data on it to make sure that the programs doing this work are really fulfilling the mission of helping people get to not just the sixth grade level, but to full literacy.
MOSESAnd that's actually a valid point, if you don't mind me saying, that you do have a decent amount -- like I said, we recruit probably about 600 a year and probably close to 300 can't pass the sixth grade level...
MOSES...and as much as we may wanna work with them, it's a lot of boundaries and restrictions. So for -- I don't know of a lot of pre-GED programs, but those -- that's something that definitely needs to be addressed.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk about jobs and job training in the District of Columbia. If you have been looking for a job, you can call us with your experiences at 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation. We're talking about job training and jobs in the District of Columbia with Eric Scott, program manager with the D.C. Department of Employment Services. Edith Westfall is deputy director of the Center for Workforce Strategies at the Community College of the District of Columbia. And Elijah Moses is director of career development with Sasha Bruce Youth Build, which trains young people in construction work and carpentry, and also prepares them to take their GEDs. We are asking for your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you been looking for a job in the District of Columbia? Tell us your experience. We got an e-mail from Barry in Ashburn, Va., who asked, "Is it reasonable to be concerned that many unemployed or underemployed people who go back to school and get a college degree will still not be able to find jobs even if they get their degree or diploma in science and technology?" Have you had any such experience, Edith Westfall, in D.C.?
WESTFALLI haven't -- I focus on the workforce development side, which are non-credit bearing. People who come out of our programs that are in high growth areas, the nursing programs, computer A+ programs get jobs. Those are high-demand areas, which is why we try to limit our training. We can't do everything. We try to limit to what we believe is most likely to get someone on the job.
NNAMDIThe unemployment rate in the District was 9.7 percent in December, but in some parts of the city that rate is more like 25 percent. So what companies and what sectors of the economy are hiring in the District these days, Eric Scott?
SCOTTWell, it's various. I mean, definitely construction. There's always opportunities in construction. It's not as many opportunities as it was in the past when the boom was taking place, but we see the economy changing around slowly. More and more work sites are starting to develop. So we have construction opportunities. There's also the universities and hospitals do a lot of hiring. I know here at DOES with our First Source Program, we have a lot of universities and hospitals that are constantly providing us employment opportunities for our individuals. So those are three of the areas that are definitely people who can actually receive jobs.
NNAMDIEdith, how about the hospitality industry? How about health care?
WESTFALLHealth care, all the programs we have, people get placed. We run everything from a home health aide up to licensed practical nurse through the workforce development side. People get the jobs. Hospitality, it's more cyclical, but we have been reaching out to several large chains, and they wanna work with us and help run hospitality programs because they are looking for people. They would really like to decrease their turnover, which is a big issue for them.
NNAMDIAnd when we were talking in the break, you mentioned two very important words in all of these that may seem ridiculously simple, but I find to be very, very important. Be nice.
WESTFALLYes. For us, time management -- the two big customers -- the soft skills that people -- employers want are customer service and time management. And that really boils down to be nice. Be as nice to other people as you want them to be to you. Be respectful of their time. It's all -- and so many people don't get that. They come in and they don't realize that so much of work is about other people, not about you.
NNAMDIYou can't imagine the impact that has on me if I go to a restaurant and the servers are...
NNAMDI...particularly young person and that person is really nice to me then I'm thinking big tip because...
NNAMDI...frankly I didn't expect it. But the more and more I see young people being nice is the more I say, yeah, you're gonna have this job for a long time because that's what a lot of people basically need. Here is Dagmar in Washington, D.C. Dagmar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAGMARYes. I'm an older worker and I've been unemployed for a while. And I went to my Department of Employment Services here in Washington, D.C. and they used to pay for training up to $8,000 a year in training. And this time, I went in for an interview with my caseworker and she told me that -- I'm sorry.
NNAMDIYour caseworker. You went in to your caseworker, and you were hoping to be able to get as much as $8,000 a year. And your caseworker told you what?
DAGMARAnd she told me that I should just work, that I'm not qualified for any training whatsoever. And the thing is, I'm now reduced to working only for entry-level positions...
DAGMAR...and I do need to be retrained.
NNAMDIWhat kind of work were you doing before?
DAGMARI was a interior designer, and I was selling furniture.
NNAMDIAnd you feel that you need to be retrained. Eric Scott, what do you say to somebody like Dagmar?
SCOTTWell, first, I have to apologize if that was, in fact, the case and what took place with the caseworker that you were working with. However, there are many training opportunities out there, many training programs. I think one of the things we have to work with you is to find out exactly what direction that you want to go into, what is your next career path and what would you like to do. Once we can identify that, then we can definitely identify training programs within the District of Columbia that would suit your needs.
NNAMDISo you would encourage Dagmar to return?
SCOTTYes. I would encourage you to return. And if you go into one of our one-stop career centers -- I have to speak to a manager first, make sure -- I'll let them know, but also you can let them know what your experience was, and we would definitely be able to work with you to get you on the right track.
DAGMAROh, thank you.
NNAMDIDagmar, thank you very much for your call, and good luck to you. From the perspective of the business owner, Elijah Moses, why should I hire one of your clients? This is such a competitive job market. I have my pick of candidates.
MOSESThat is an outstanding question, Kojo, and I can definitely address that. One thing that happens with local businesses that are District businesses in D.C. is they have to follow and abide by First Source laws, which mandates 51 percent of all new hires on certain contracts, have to hire D.C. residents. Another business -- another opportunity that helps to our advantage is the 35 percent contracts on publicly fund...
NNAMDIPublicly funded projects.
MOSESSorry. Thank you. That goes to local CBEs. So a few local CBE...
NNAMDIWhat's a CBE?
MOSESCertified business enterprise.
MOSESSorry, I'm talking...
NNAMDIYou're talking Washington talk, yes.
MOSESSorry. I've been here a few years and I'm getting acclimated.
NNAMDIWashington is the acronym capital of the world. (laugh)
MOSESRight, right. So with those two in general, we can have a good shot at -- if a local CBE has an opportunity, then go in to them with that. The other thing is that most employers don't wanna fish through 100 or 200 or 300 applications. And I've spent a lot of time marketing our program and reaching out to local contractors, and also getting them to meet each other to testify, hey, this guy hired four people and they're great. They show up on time. They work hard. And this one hired, too, and everything from sheet metal companies to roofing companies. And when other contractors testify to that, that helps with our placement opportunities. And they have a -- you can take that chance, or you can sit and sift through 60 applications.
NNAMDIEdith Westfall, I've got my pick of candidates. Why should I pick candidates coming to me out of the Center for Strategic Strategies at the Community College of the District of Columbia?
WESTFALLOur students know what they're doing. You -- we get -- they're very well trained. They know technically what to do. They get soft skills training along the way. And whenever it exists, we make sure that they can take a nationally or regionally recognized credentialing exam. So you know you're getting a good student, an employee that will work for you, and you won't have to keep replacing them because replacing...
WESTFALL...employee costs, I think, what -- the average is three times their salary? Get one of our employees. They want the job. They're gonna stick with you.
NNAMDIBut here's the rub on First Source, Eric Scott. The Washington Post ran an editorial yesterday, saying that First Source under which the law says that if you are on a job with -- that's being conducted with public funds, then your first effort has to be to hire a District of Columbia resident. The Washington Post is saying that First Source was largely ineffective, that it was really a Band-Aid, that it doesn't address the mismatch between the skills that jobseekers have and the employers' needs. What would you say to that?
SCOTTWell, I will agree that in the past, historically, the First Source law has been around for a couple of decades now.
SCOTTIt has not been as effective as it should have been. In the past four to five months, we've made a major overhaul in the infrastructure of the First Source program. And one of the things that we have to do is make sure that employers -- the needs of employers are met accurately so that -- and what we've done is created a job matching division within First Source which hadn't been there in the past. And what that actually does is work closely with the First Source employers, find out specifically what their needs are for these particular positions, the qualifications, the skill sets. And our job matchers in the First Source actually work with our participants and our client base to match that specifically with those employers. I mean, we wanna...
NNAMDIThat's fairly new.
SCOTTYes, it's very new. It's within the past four months. And we wanna make sure that we pre-screen potential applicants as much as possible because the bottom line is, we work for the employers and we wanna make sure that the employers are getting what they need from us.
SCOTTThe goal is to hire District residents, to get District residents employed. So whatever we need to do it, that's what we're now doing.
NNAMDIHere's Aaron in Fairfax, Va. Hi, Aaron. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
AARONVery good. I moved out to the District three years ago and worked for Samaritan Inns in Northwest D.C. I don't know if you guys heard of the program.
AARONNo. Well, they do job placement training. And anyway, I actually moved out here with only a high school diploma and bounced back and forth from job to job. I've been a plumber. I've been a canvasser for Greenpeace. And now I'm actually self-employed. And I wanna -- I just wanna say thank you. Sasha Bruce did an amazing work. And my first question was, how many other programs are there that are very similar? Because they're irreplaceable. I mean, these -- you know, kids that genuinely wanna work oftentimes just don't know how to get there. They just don't know, you know -- and I'd just, you know, say, just give your phone number and your e-mail as many times as you can during this broadcast because, you know, kids need this.
NNAMDIWe'll provide links to the websites of all of these organizations if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, so you don't have to try to remember each one. But I don't know, Elijah Moses, if you wanna add anything to what Aaron just said.
MOSESIf I can add maybe two things, one is that there are quite an amount of programs in the District that serve youth. Because of our funding, we are strictly limited to 18- to 24-year-olds. I'd love to work with the 26-year-olds, but there are capacity limitations on that. But there are three youth builds in the District. Sasha Bruce is one of them. There are two others. One, who I hear, may be closing down, but I'm not sure if that's official just yet. And there are other myriad of programs in the District also that can help. I don't know them all by name, but I do know that there are many that serve definitely in that population.
MOSESOne thing I always like to say is that when you are looking to enroll into a program to ensure that it's going to meet your bottom line and not sift from program to program to program -- because some programs are attracting funds, not doing much. And for me, I can't look a guy in the eye, and he's done everything. He can show up on time. He has all his tools. He's ready to go to work. And I'm looking him in the eye and he's -- I can't find him a job. So I never want that burden on my shoulder because I want for him the same thing I want for myself -- to go to work and be able to feed your...
NNAMDIWe're almost running out of time. Edith, in the long-term, what needs to happen to start to erase the gap between the skills jobseekers have and the skills employers want?
WESTFALLThat's a good question. One of the things is doing -- is for all of us -- and I think we're all doing this -- reaching out to employers and identifying that skill set. I respectfully disagree with the Washington Post about...
WESTFALL...about First Source and whether or not they're District residents who have the right skills. I've personally been through a lot of them. Unfortunately, a lot of them are re-entering citizens with criminal records. And when faced with a choice with someone who doesn't have a record and someone who does, I think they're choosing the person who doesn't. We see a lot of people coming in with fabulous construction resumes who can't get hired. So, one, I think we need to work on ex-offender legislation for people who've been formerly incarcerated, about how long background checks can go through, strengthening First Source and continuing the funding that addresses -- helping us work with employers to identify the skills gap and then develop the programs which we can get out.
NNAMDIThe most difficult part of that might be continuing the funding.
NNAMDIBut we have to see what happens in the legislative process,
NNAMDIEdith Westfall is deputy director of the Center for Workforce Strategies at the Community College of the District of Columbia. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIEric Scott is program manager with the D.C. Department of Employment Services. Eric, thank you for joining us.
SCOTTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Elijah Moses is director of career development at Sasha Bruce Youth Build. Elijah, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Fresh off the presidential campaign trail, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine is back at work on Capitol Hill on issues affecting both Virginia and the greater Washington region.
Since election day, the incoming Trump administration has slowly taken up residence in the Washington region. We look at how welcoming the region has been to new residents.
We talk with Chevy Chase business owners and residents about the reaction to the Sunday gun scare at Comet Ping Pong.