You could see the essential social predicament facing D.C. -- and many other urban centers -- last Friday on a sunny summer day in the heart of Ward 8.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. avenues come together to form a triangle, across from the Opportunities Industrialization Center, a job training agency. The park in the triangle was jammed with folks, hanging out on picnic tables, sipping beers from paper bags, passing time.
A half-mile away, right down MLK Avenue toward the Anacostia River, construction cranes worked both sides of the road. The new Department of Homeland Security headquarters, perhaps the country's largest federal construction project, is taking shape on both sides of the avenue, in the east and west campuses of St. Elizabeths.
It will take thousands of workers to build out the Homeland Security headquarters and the Coast Guard headquarters nearby. The jobs will be up for grabs here in Ward 8, perennially the District's most downtrodden section. The unemployment rate here hit 22.5 percent last month. That's more than twice the District's rate of 9.3 percent and nearly three times the national average.
Why such joblessness amid a construction boom? D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has been monitoring the hiring of District residents and has scheduled a hearing on the matter next Tuesday. There's no simple answer, but everyone I interviewed agreed that too many D.C. residents are not prepared for the skilled jobs that contractors need.
"Of course we want to hire District residents," an official with a building trade group told me, "but it's a training issue. We can hire, but the District must train. We see too many people come to job fairs not prepared to work."
Norton is in a tough spot. She has no vote, which cuts into her clout. "And on the federal side," she says, "firms can hire from anywhere in the country." So Norton has to encourage and cajole, which have met with success. She reports that Clark Construction hired 407 D.C. residents of 1,913 on the Coast Guard job. She noted that two other firms, Balfour Beatty and Grunley, had hired far fewer D.C. residents.
"It's unfair and unscientific to judge firms the same way," she says. "I'm looking for good-faith effort."
Michael Burlas, chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Metro Washington, says Mayor Vince Gray "gets job training more than any other mayor." But it's too early to see results. Gerry Sigal, president of Sigal Construction, said his firm held job fairs in neighborhoods around the public schools he's been building, found locals who wanted to work, hired them and trained them.
"They did a fantastic job," he said. "It can be done, if you put in the effort."
The question for residents of Ward 8 is whether they will put in the effort to train for skilled jobs, which can take four years for an electrician or a plumber.
A park on MLK Avenue is no place to pick up a trade.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at email@example.com.