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Mobile jobs center to visit Baltimore neighborhoods with high unemployment

Michael Williams stopped by Mondawmin Mall Tuesday to visit the bank, but was drawn to the parking lot where a giant recreational vehicle emblazoned with the words "mobile job center" was stopped.

The 47-year-old East Baltimore man said he needs work, but finding a job with a criminal record has been a challenge. Seeing the vehicle — as it was unveiled by Mayor Catherine Pugh, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and sponsor Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. — gave him hope.

"I wanted to see what opportunities are out here," Williams said. "I am an ex-offender, and a lot of the time doors are shut on you. A lot of opportunities are not available to us because we are still being judged after we pay our debt to society.

"I am trying to better myself and not go back."

Pugh said the retrofitted, 38-foot camper is the first in a fleet she hopes to deploy across Baltimore to help thousands of unemployed residents looking for work. The mobile unit sponsored by BGE and run by the Pratt will begin touring neighborhoods in May.

"We can change Baltimore," Pugh told a crowd gathered Tuesday for the unveiling. "This is a symbol of change."

The vehicle is equipped with 13 computer stations, large screens for group presentations and library staff to help people create resumes, apply for work and connect to training programs.

The vehicle will travel through the city four days a week and two Saturdays a month, stopping in neighborhoods, such as Oldtown and Westport, where unemployment is the highest. Each stop is expected to last four hours.

Additionally, the vehicle is expected to visit city festivals and community events.

Pugh said she wants to also have guest employers join the mobile center to hire people on the spot when possible. She has funding lined up for two more employment vehicles, but details won't be available for several weeks.

BGE is sponsoring the first center with a $600,000 commitment over three years.

Calvin G. Butler Jr., the utility's CEO and a member of the Pratt board, said the mobile unit is an example of the power of public-private partnerships. He was working in conjunction with the library on the concept when Pugh said she called him about a year ago with a similar idea.

"Everyone deserves access to high quality information and the ability to see and apply for employment electronically, which is increasingly becoming the only way for people to access good jobs," Butler said. He donated to Pugh's campaign and was a member of her transition team.

The jobs center is the first in the region and builds on workforce development offered by the library and the Mayor's Office of Employment Development.

Roving employment centers operate in Southern Maryland, and cities including Atlanta and Memphis, Tenn.

In Atlanta, the mobile unit coordinator Phyllis B. Jackson said more than 1,250 people visited the vehicle last year for help searching for work, writing resumes and practicing interview skills. The mobile center, launched there in 2007, has a dozen work stations and separate rooms for one-on-one counseling sessions or interviews.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he is eager to see the effort help out people who have had trouble finding work. The mobile center is scheduled to visit the city's highest need communities, such as the Upton and Druid Heights neighborhoods where only 36 percent of adults work.

"This is going to be game-changer for our communities," Young said.

Tammy Wallace of West Baltimore saw the crowd gathered around the vehicle Tuesday and wandered over to see what was going on. She grabbed a pamphlet on the mobile center to show friends and family members who are looking for jobs.

Wallace, 40, said she has two brothers who have both recently been released from prison and looking for work. A friend has been "on the street for 15 months now, and he hasn't found a job yet. He's been pounding the pavement."

She said the jobs center offers hope, but she sees it as only a partial solution.

"It's hard due to criminal backgrounds from years ago," Wallace said. "It's still a bad look on a lot of black men that really want to work and don't want to stand on the corner.

"It's the criminal background that's tearing them down. I hope that it makes some kind of change, some kind of progress, a stepping stone, let it be the first stone."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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