Leaving his job on a recent day, Terry Drake spotted a 38-foot recreational vehicle parked outside the Cherry Hill Town Center emblazoned with the words “Job Center.” He threw his arms up in air with excitement.
The 56-year-old welder said he has been dreading the arrival of winter — the cold weather makes his feet and hands go numb, although the hot days aren’t much more tolerable the older he gets. He wants to find a new job that will allow him to work indoors and out of the elements, but the search is daunting and good work is hard to come by as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library’s job center on wheels seemed to Drake, who lives in Cherry Hill, like a good place to start his job search. He approached librarian Wesley Wilson and asked for help.
“Welding is a young man’s trade,” Drake said. “I’m tired of the outdoors.”
Wilson, chief of the Pratt’s Cathedral Street branch and head of the mobile job center, said his team can type resumes, search for available positions and guide job seekers on the hunt for work. He handed Drake a pamphlet to fill out with his educational background, work history and references that the Pratt workers can use to create his resume.
Wilson asked Drake to come back in a couple of days to see whether his research found any available jobs.
The job center launched in 2017 with $600,000 from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and its parent company Exelon Corp. Its $140,000 annual operating costs are paid for now by philanthropist Sandra R. Berman.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the mobile job center drew big crowds, serving as many as 13,000 people a year with stops across Baltimore at community events and places like Mondawmin Mall or outside churches. Each of a dozen computer stations inside the RV would be filled with Pratt staff guiding job seekers on the search for job prospects, sharing tips for interviews, and helping them submit online applications or connect to training.
Linwood Burley, who drives the RV, said the job center has been so popular that people waved to get his attention at traffic lights or they’d follow it to its next stop to get help.
The job center is back in the community after a hiatus to adjust services after the pandemic struck. For now, the RV is closed and Pratt workers stand on the sidewalk, where they give literature and field questions about where to go for food stamps or how to get financial aid.
The RV will be stationed for now at the Cherry Hill shopping center at 603 Cherry Hill Road from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday. The location was selected because of the volume of people who pass through the shopping center, the number of nearby homes without internet and the area’s historically high unemployment rate, said Meghan McCorkell, Pratt’s spokeswoman. Other stops will be added eventually.
The mobile center recently was equipped with an antenna to turn it into a Wi-Fi hot spot that allows up to 65 devices to connect to the internet at any one time. The network name and password are written on a sign in large print on the side of the RV.
McCorkell said the Pratt raised private funds to buy new Chromebooks computers that should arrive within a month. When they arrive, the staff will set up tables on the sidewalk to help job seekers on the spot.
For the time being, they’re continuing the work remotely. They are available by telephone, an online chat and email. Once the Pratt workers produce the resumes, they can mail them to the job seeker or have them come back to the job center to pick them up.
Serving a growing need
Demand at the job mobile has fallen dramatically to a dozen or fewer customers a day, even as unemployment has soared during the pandemic, McCorkell said. The Pratt believes the numbers will rise as word spreads about the RV’s location, the free Wi-Fi access and the arrival of the Chromebooks.
The need is great. Unemployment in Baltimore reached 9.1% in September, the most recent month for which data is available, dropping slightly from 9.5% in August and 10.3% in July. The unemployment number is expected to rise again as the rate of COVID-19′s infection picks up and more businesses are forced to close or limit the number of customers they can serve.
Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, said “well over 100,000 Baltimoreans applied for unemployment insurance since March." Serving the public means finding ways to adjust services, just as the Pratt has done with its jobs mobile, he said.
Perkins-Cohen’s team, for its part, has started online workshops that feature employers, job coaches, and tips and tools. The city’s employment office also maintains a job board with open positions, including for Baltimore Health Corps' contract tracing jobs, which start at $35,000 a year.
“Some jobs started to come back,” he said. “Unfortunately, the health data is going the wrong way.”
The situation is especially acute for Black Baltimoreans. Although race-specific data lags significantly, the unemployment rate for Black workers is generally two and three times higher than for their white counterparts, said Jeremy Schwartz, an associate economics professor at Loyola University Maryland.
In a place like Cherry Hill, joblessness can be devastating. The highly segregated neighborhood is made up of nearly 90% Black residents, according to data from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute.
Darrell Carroll, 34, knows the struggle. Carroll, who is Black, returned home to Cherry Hill in April after serving a four-year prison sentence. He stopped by Pratt’s mobile job center to see what services it might offer. He said he is open to any type of work but has found the job market extremely competitive, especially as an ex-offender. He left with the resume pamphlet and a plan to come back for more guidance.
“It’s just hard,” Carroll said. “I am trying to get a job. I can do anything.”
Schwartz said anytime the economy falters, inequities are exasperated. That is due, in part, to concentrated poverty made worse by the digital divide, lack of strong public transportation and other factors.
“We’ve seen jobless claims, as a proxy for people losing their jobs, skyrocket to a level we’ve never really seen before," he said.
The mobile job center is a constructive step toward connecting people to work, Schwartz said. At a minimum, he said, the Pratt workers help reach across the information divide to help people find and compete for jobs even if they have no access to the internet or limited computer literacy. The convenience of the RV parked right outside of a shopping center also helps, he said.
Still, the impact is limited, Schwartz said. People facing long-term unemployment, especially those with limited skills or work history, need more significant support. And some of the problems are outside any one individual’s control, such as the region’s patchwork mass transit.
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“The systemic problem is much larger than one mobile bus can address,” he said.