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$5 million grant will provide job training for hundreds in Baltimore

Armed with a special $5 million federal grant, Baltimore is poised to launch a job-training program to help hundreds of young adults from struggling neighborhoods find work in a wide array of fields — as plumbing and electrical apprentices, automotive technicians, medical lab associates and patient care aides.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez promised the money during a visit to Baltimore after the April unrest, saying that training would offer at-risk young people "a chance to chart a new course, gain job skills and find stable, meaningful careers."

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City officials said they expect to award contracts next month to a dozen organizations to provide the training. The goal is to help residents of low-income communities, ages roughly 16 to 29, get jobs in health care, construction and manufacturing, among other fields.

Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, said officials expect to choose job-training providers with close ties to city communities so they can serve disenfranchised young adults who have been hard to reach. The city's spending panel is expected to formally accept the grant at its Wednesday meeting.

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"This money will begin providing real services before the end of the year," Perkins-Cohen said. "This is training that is going to lead to a job. People need training and jobs now. We have the pedal to the metal."

The city will begin by spending about $3 million to hire up to 12 groups that will train at least 700 people. The providers must demonstrate the ability to connect people to jobs at the end of the training by using existing relationships with city-based employers, Perkins-Cohen said.

The agency will spend the rest of the money in the coming months, Perkins-Cohen said. The goal for the next phase is to find innovative ways to serve people who are struggling with literacy or have criminal backgrounds or mental health problems that create barriers to employment, he said.

"If we only focus on training, it will not be enough," Perkins-Cohen said.

Thousands of young people need work in Baltimore — among 16- to 24-year-olds alone, about 18,000 young men and women in the city are disconnected from school or work, according to U.S. Census officials. Still, West Baltimore activist Ray Kelly praised the plan's scope.

"As a starting figure, 700 is very significant. I won't knock it," said Kelly, a lead organizer with the No Boundaries Coalition, an advocacy group based in Sandtown-Winchester, the epicenter of the April unrest.

Kelly said he hopes the training program leads to "jobs at the end of the rainbow" for the lucky 700 chosen. He said he has been among the city residents who have sat through job-training classes only to find themselves searching in vain for work.

Still, he said he is optimistic. And he firmly believes that jobs are the foundation for transforming Baltimore's struggling communities.

"The best cure for crime and violence is a job," he said.

Jeremy Schwartz, an assistant professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland, said job-training programs are worthwhile investments that close the gap in urban America between the skills in demand in the job market and the unemployed desperate for work.

"There is untapped potential in our neighborhoods that this will unleash," Schwartz said. "We need to start thinking about these things as investments rather than simply giving away money."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city is working to pool as many resources as possible to put more residents to work. Though unemployment in Baltimore has dropped by a third since 2010, the jobless rate in the city was 8.2 percent in July, far higher than the state rate of 5.2 percent.

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Rawlings-Blake said training is critical to reducing unemployment and that the grant will help "reach more of our residents with targeted skills training in high-growth industries." Administration officials note that in March, the city announced a new workforce development center in Park Heights to prepare students for careers in advanced manufacturing.

Perkins-Cohen said the city gave organizations until Aug. 7 to submit proposals for training based on the promise of money from Perez, a former Maryland labor secretary. Perez announced a similar grant to Ferguson, Mo., following the unrest triggered by the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen killed by a white police officer. In June, the Labor Department also announced $17 million in job-training grants to six other cities.

In Baltimore, the groups selected to provide training will be expected to find and sign up young people in the communities where they live, rather than having them travel to enroll, Perkins-Cohen said.

"In responding to something we heard clearly from the unrest, we want to bring the training to the residents," he said. "We know that having a job leads to everything. It means having an income, a roof over your head, clothes on your body, food on your table."

The exact ages and other criteria for participation are still being developed.

Longtime city activist Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, a former president of the Baltimore chapters of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Tuesday that he is anxious to start spreading the word about the job training. Cheatham, president of the Matthew A. Henson Community Development Association in West Baltimore, said he hopes the program will help divert young people otherwise tempted by the allure of "fast, easy and illegal money."

"The moment they say 'go,' we can start signing people up," he said. "We need to get our sons and daughters signed up."

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