The Aberdeen Proving Ground area is expected to get 27,000 new jobs in the next decade, said Rick Walker, Harford County's assistant director of social services. Officials in Howard and Anne Arundel counties expect the first 5,300 jobs coming directly to Fort Meade will be followed in five or six years by two or three times more private defense and support jobs. Those are the positions social services officials hope their clients can get access to.
"It's clearly going to change the local economy. We're really excited about it. We're looking at it as a wonderful opportunity for our [welfare recipients] to use that as a launching pad for their families," Walker said.
Welfare clients who stop receiving cash assistance typically work as day care providers, sales clerks, cashiers, bank tellers, receptionists or nursing assistants, said Charlene Gallion, Howard County's social services director. The new jobs could offer better income and benefits, she said.
"We want people to be employed, but we also want them to be offered jobs that have career potential. Not all of our customers are low-skilled," she said.
Andy Moser, president and chief executive officer of the Anne Arundel County Workforce Development Corp., said he's thinking along the same lines.
"The state Department of Labor has a $1.2 million planning grant from the federal government" to prepare for the coming jobs, he said.
"We've been working with the Anne Arundel County social services. The big thing right now is we're trying to find specific information on what jobs are coming. That's what the planning money can do," Moser said.
Howard County has a relatively small welfare population, but with the state's lowest unemployment rate (2.8 percent) and among the highest housing costs, Gallion and Gerald M. Richman, chairman of the county's social services board, see a chance for some people to escape the entry-level, no-benefits treadmill.
"We understand our customers need higher than minimum wage to live in Howard County. Our goal is to target some of those positions coming available and match them with people in our caseload," said Gallion.
Dick Story, Howard County's economic development CEO, said the opportunities are real, though not immediate.
"There's time to plan for it. Everybody's going to have to get together now. There's going to be a real crunch finding the people to do the jobs, at all levels," he said.
"If you put a pin in a map of Fort Meade and start drawing circles, 40 percent of that circle will cover Howard County," Story said, and the already tight suburban labor market will only help people trying to transform their lives.
The notion of finding new opportunities for poor residents won praise from other officials.
"I think there are going to be opportunities. The trick will be to package the employment opportunities and get the word out to the contractors," said Anne Towne, director of Howard County's Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for 150 private social agencies.
"It's a fabulous idea. We need stronger linkages with economic development and human services. We need to be building much stronger partnerships," said Susan Rosenbaum, director of Citizen Services in Howard, the county agency that administers funds for nonprofit social agencies in the county.
Gallion said Richman brought the idea up as officials searched for new ways to help welfare recipients, noncustodial parents who owe child support and people who get food stamps, to better their lives.
"This is all in its infancy," Richman said, but his vision is part of his determination to make a difference after six years on the social services board.