A significant number of Baltimore-area residents are struggling with so many challenges — from a lack of education to the lack of a car — that they're hard-pressed to land a job and even harder-pressed to find one that can lift them out of poverty, according to a regional group of government agencies, nonprofits and other players.

"Most of the region's low-skilled job seekers face multiple and complex barriers to employment opportunity that have been getting worse," the Opportunity Collaborative concluded in its report, released Monday.

The collaborative, a group coordinated by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, is working on a regional plan to reduce such problems through efforts in workforce development, transportation and housing.

Common challenges the group's study cited include poor math and reading skills, no driver's license and no way to get to certain jobs by using public transportation. The majority of 1,000 local job seekers surveyed for the report said they couldn't find jobs that paid enough for basic living expenses, let alone for further education.

More than 20 percent, meanwhile, said their criminal record is a barrier to finding work of any sort.

"People are stuck," said Michael Kelly, director of the Opportunity Collaborative. "What I hope people get out of this study is an understanding of the complexities that folks living at or near the poverty line face in trying to improve their situations. … Once you have the data, you can start working on solutions."

It's far harder for people with challenges today than it was in the late 1990s, when low unemployment lifted all boats, said Carl E. Van Horn, director of Rutgers' John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.

Employers faced with many applications for openings look for reasons to eliminate candidates. Lack of recent work experience. An old misdemeanor. Bad credit.

"All these things become sorting mechanisms," he said.

The Opportunity Collaborative's work is funded with a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The regional group expects to release recommendations next year, but it suggested several steps in the new report, including:

•More adult basic education to help workers increase necessary skills and pass the high school equivalency exam. The local unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma or its equivalent was 80 percent higher in 2012 than for those with a diploma, the study found.

•More efforts like the state's Employment Advancement Right Now — EARN — in which industry-led groups launch skills training programs.

•More attention to "structural racism" problems that add barriers. As one example, the report says, arrest rates for marijuana possession are higher for African-Americans in Maryland than whites despite comparable levels of marijuana use.

Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore nonprofit that focuses on low-wage workers, wants to see more career paths for lower-skill workers, ways "by which they can get the training to get their foot in the door and move up by working hard," he said.

That's because the problem isn't just landing a job. So many positions pay so little that people can't support themselves, he said, and end up cycling in and out of work as problems — like a repossessed car — pop up.

Julie Dawson of Baltimore said she learned firsthand how hard it can be to get out of the poverty hole once you fall in.

She was named woman entrepreneur of the year in Pennsylvania eight years ago, but the recession hit her gymnastics business so hard that she was forced to close it. The job she took afterward, billed as full time, gave her too few hours to pay her rent.

She and her two children would have been homeless if her sister in Columbia hadn't taken them in four years ago. Even now, with a part-time job, a commissioned sales position and other sales work on the side, she doesn't think she'd be making it if her mother hadn't used retirement savings to buy a townhouse for the family. (She wants to get a mortgage and pay her back within two years.)

Dawson said she has years of work experience and no criminal record. But she doesn't have a college degree, and she sees that as a barrier to better wages. After finding that government assistance such as child-care vouchers disappears when you land even relatively low-paying work, she can see how people get stuck in the system.

"It's very difficult to be self-sustaining when you have children — especially children who need child care," Dawson said. "That is the situation I was in."

The scope of the problem looks daunting, particularly now. Chris Seals, a consultant who helped write the Opportunity Collaborative's Barriers to Employment study, said workforce development organizations "have about half the funding today that they had six or seven years ago, and the number of unemployed people has about doubled."

But Seals, based in Texas, said he sees more interest in attacking the problem in the Baltimore area than in any other place he's worked.

"I really truly believe that's one of the greatest advantages that the region has, the desire and willingness to take on these challenges," Seals said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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