Next steps for HopkinsLocal

In the nearly two years since the post-Freddie Gray riots, efforts to address Baltimore's legacy of inequality and injustice have sprouted across the city in ways large and small. But will it make a real and tangible difference in the lives of people who live in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester? Can we really make a dent in the city's concentrated, entrenched poverty? The initial report on HopkinsLocal, an effort by Johns Hopkins University and Health System to use their economic clout to increase opportunities for Baltimoreans who need them, gives some reason for optimism.

One year after its launch, the program has steered more construction money into minority and women-owned firms, led to the hiring of 304 people from targeted ZIP codes into a variety of positions at the university and hospital — including a substantial number with criminal records — and increased by nearly $5 million the amount the university and health system spend with local vendors. That represents a real difference in the lives of thousands of people. But the lasting impact may be the extent to which it builds capacity among the individuals who are hired and the companies that get contracts, and to which it is replicable by the region's other major employers.

There's already progress on the latter front, with dozens of major firms signed on to BLocal, a similar effort being spearheaded by Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, Hopkins Health System President Ronald R. Peterson and BGE CEO Calvin Butler. In addition to multiplying the HopkinsLocal goals on hiring, purchasing and contracting, it includes the creation of BLocal BUILD College, which provides small, local, minority-owned, woman-owned and disadvantaged businesses with training in things like preparing bids and managing projects. It gives participating firms a chance to compete for jobs in their own right.

HopkinsLocal has set out some strategies to further develop its hiring efforts, including expanding the set of entry level positions for which it will recruit workers and improving its tracking of those employees' retention and advancement. The real measure of success will be the degree to which Hopkins not only provides entry-level jobs for people who live in impoverished neighborhoods but actually fosters upward mobility on a multi-generational scale.

The potential is certainly there. The university and health system have long provided generous tuition remission and other educational benefits for their employees and their children. They need to clearly align those opportunities with pathways for career advancement, and they need to identify the barriers that keep their employees (whether hired through HopkinsLocal or not) from taking advantage of them.

Things most of us think little about — commuting to work, buying groceries, getting a sick kid to the doctor — tend to require much more time and effort for the working poor, whose jobs often lack the flexibility to take care of those ordinary activities of daily living, much less to allow them to embark on career advancement. The lack of efficient public transportation between Hopkins' campuses and many of the targeted neighborhoods is clearly an issue, as is the difficulty of finding convenient, reliable and affordable child care. But there are likely other, less obvious barriers, and Hopkins should create internal grants to fund research into what they are and how to overcome them.

The focus should not just be on the employees themselves but also on their children. Much discussed research from Harvard economists found that growing up in Baltimore diminished opportunities for poor children, and particularly poor boys, far more than any other big county in the nation. Hopkins has made some efforts to improve outcomes for Baltimore children, most recently through its support for the well regarded P-TECH high school-to-career model. But a focus on the development potential of the university's and health system's employees provides the opportunity for earlier and more holistic interventions for a group of city children. A University of Maryland Baltimore program that aims to prepare kids for science and technology careers beginning in middle school could provide a useful model.

Perhaps most crucially, the university and health system need to demonstrate the impact such investments in recruiting and developing a local workforce have on retention, productivity and other bottom-line metrics. Not only would that help cement such efforts into Hopkins culture, but they would also make it more likely for the city's big for-profit employers to follow suit.

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