Gray Convenes a Jobs Summit

James Wright | 12/15/2010, 5:50 p.m.
Business Leaders Discuss Ways to Create Jobs in the District...
D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent Gray listens as business executives and university leaders discuss ways to bring more jobs to the District.  Photo by Victor Holt

Business Leaders Discuss Ways to Create Jobs in the District

More than 50 leaders in fields that include non-profits, labor and academia recently met with the mayor-elect of the District of Columbia to discuss ways to attract more jobs to the nation's capital and effective methods to get District residents back to work.

D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent Gray convened a jobs summit in the offices of the law firm of Arnold & Porter in Northwest on Mon., Dec. 13 for input from the business community as to how to jump start employment in the city. Gray said that the nation's recession has had a negative impact on the economy of the District and its residents' ability to find jobs.

"I decided to bring together a variety of sectors to talk about what we can do to get people jobs in the District of Columbia," Gray, 68, said.

"We have about 700,000 jobs in the city but only one-third of those jobs are held by District residents. The rest go to people who live in Maryland and Virginia and other places as well."

Recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the Washington D.C. metropolitan area posted a 5.6 percent jobless rate -- the lowest of any large city and its surrounding suburbs in the country -- the District itself hovers around 9.5 percent. It has been well-documented by studies conducted by think-tanks and the District's Department of Employment Services that predominantly Black Ward 8 in Southeast has the city's highest unemployment rate in the city at 30 percent while predominantly White Ward 3 in Northwest has only 3 percent.

D.C. Council Chairman-elect Kwame Brown said that a serious effort must be made to combat joblessness in eastern Washington.

"The condition of high unemployment in Wards 7 and 8 has been around since I have been a kid," Brown, 40, said.

"We need to create meaningful jobs for people with training programs that produce results. It may be a situation where people are in the wrong industry, where that industry is no longer viable."
Stephen Fuller, the director of Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said that the District has an economy that is resilient because the job growth is focused in areas that include the federal government, health services and education, which will need skilled workers. He said that the key to the District economy is getting its residents ready for the jobs in the hot areas without too much effort.

One problem that was consistently pointed out by the group focused on hiring ex-offenders. Both Fuller and Gray said that about 2,500 citizens return from incarceration each year and have to deal with hostile potential employers.

Thomas Graham, the president of the Pepco Region which services 720,000 customers in the District, Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland, said that felony records remain the number one deterrent to hiring at his company. Graham, 50, said that many times those with felony records also cannot pass a fifth grade aptitude examination and a drug test.

Bill Dean, the chief executive officer of MC Dean, headquartered in McLean, Va., said that the federal government needs to change its policy toward ex-felons, if they have served time for a non-violent charge. Dean also said that reading, writing and mathematics competency is not just a problem in the District but "everywhere."

The high illiteracy rate was repeatedly cited by the leaders as a problem in hiring District residents. The State Education Agency published a study in 2007 that said 36 percent of the District's residents are functionally illiterate.

Jonathan Gueverra, the chief executive officer of the Community College of the District of Columbia in Northeast, said that he is well aware of the illiteracy problem.

"We have found that 20 percent of our students have to take developmental education courses to prepare [them] to do academic work in our community college," Gueverra, 52, said.

"In addition, they need these courses to become workforce ready."

Gueverra recounted a story about a young man at the community college who showed up at a job interview wearing jeans.

"That young man is an example that career coaches are needed at the middle school level," he said.
Steven Knapp, the president of George Washington University in Northwest, said that he would take the lead in helping District residents find jobs by hosting a university job fair. He also wants to explore the possibility of hosting a symposium that would help District residents to find employment.
Gray said that he was pleased with the summit.

"I am uplifted by the commitment of the people who participated," he said.

"We have had a great conversation but it will not mean anything if nothing occurs in the aftermath." Wi