Put Baltimore back to work

Labor Day weekend — the annual celebration of the American worker and our last summer fling — seems also a fitting time to review the state of working Baltimore.

The facts are these:

•Baltimore City's unemployment rate, as of July, is 10.8 percent. That's almost 4 percentage points higher than the state's rate (at 7.1 percent) and equates to some 30,700 adults who are actively seeking work to support their families.

•When added together with those who are no longer seeking work, according to the U.S. Census/American Community Survey, a full 46 percent of the city's adults between ages 16 and 64 are either unemployed or out of the labor force altogether.

•For those who do work, wages remain low. The census estimates per-capita income in Baltimore at $23,853. The comparable state figure is $35,751.

What's holding Baltimore workers back? As the number of city residents actively seeking employment makes clear, it is certainly not the desire to work. It does, however, seem to be some combination of:

•the absolute number of jobs available as the economy struggles to gain steam;

•changes in the labor market that increasingly favor more-educated workers over less-educated ones (the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, 66 percent of the jobs in Maryland will require some training beyond high school);

•systemic school failure that, until recently, has resulted in low rates of school completion and high rates of school dropout;

•the over-arrest and incarceration of African-American males related to the war on drugs — whose convictions for even minor offenses make it difficult, if not impossible, to find work; and

•residential, commercial development, and transportation patterns that have concentrated poverty and constrained opportunity in urban areas on the one hand and supported the outmigration of residents, businesses and jobs on the other.

So what can we do about it? Along with continuing to improve our K-12 public education system and building a robust transportation network to link city residents to regional jobs — topics that have received considerable coverage on these pages — here are five big ideas for Baltimore:

•Lead with jobs: Debates about the constitutionality of a local hiring ordinance aside, Baltimore absolutely can use once-in-a-lifetime public investments in school construction, housing demolition, and the Red Line to connect unemployed city workers to jobs. We can directly hire unemployed workers — including those with criminal records unrelated to their ability to perform on the job — while also supporting further education and training to build both work experiences and occupational skills that will increase their competitiveness in the labor market — even after these projects are completed.

•Invest in building the skills of Baltimore's work force: Education and skills are the keys to success in the current labor market, yet only a very small percentage of unemployed Baltimore job seekers are able to access publicly funded education and training. During the last legislative session, Maryland established a $4.5 million statewide training fund, Employment Advancement Right Now (EARN), to train job seekers with the skills sought by Maryland employers. Baltimore can follow suit and establish its own training fund for upgrading the skills of adult workers and expanding opportunity.

A Baltimore Training Fund could be sourced — as in Newark, N.J. and Boston — through proceeds from the sale or transfar of public lands, by small increases in the repayment rate on public loans and/or by a small surcharge on large development projects that receive public support. A recent study for the Baltimore Workforce Funders Collaborative has demonstrated that work force training programs that deliver industry-recognized credentials, like Baltimore's construction program JumpStart and the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland — move participants out of poverty and into career track jobs. Baltimore can and should support many more such opportunities.

•Secure highly capable and visionary leadership for Baltimore City Community College (BCCC), where the president was let go in December. BCCC, as the Sun has reported, is experiencing steep declines in enrollment. Its graduation and transfer rates are the lowest in the state. All this while around the country community colleges are playing a greater and greater role in preparing workers for 21st century jobs. BCCC is a critical community institution that with the right leadership and attention to efficacy could serve as the engine for moving a whole new generation of Baltimore workers into higher-paying jobs.

•Support policy changes at the state level to increase the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour and expand earned paid sick and family leave. Maryland can join states across the country in moving toward family-supporting wages and giving workers the opportunity to care for themselves and their families without jeopardizing their jobs.

•Demand results. Too many adult education and employment programs count enrollees and services provided as measures of performance. As we work to increase and strengthen our investments, we must be clear that completion and graduation rates, credentials and skills gained, and measurable increases in employment and wages are the measures that matter.

From growing our tax base and economy to improving school performance and reducing crime, Baltimore will work better when more of Baltimore is working. The only way to get more of Baltimore working is to increase employment opportunities and build skills.

Summer vacation is over. It's time to get to work.

Martha Holleman is an independent policy and research consultant and Baltimore resident. The opinions above are her own, though several of these recommendations are drawn from work done by the Job Opportunities Task Force and in conjunction with the Baltimore Integration Partnership. She can be reached at holleman.martha@gmail.com.

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