Originally published to The Business Journals- December 17th, 2021
Before Anthony Holmes was incarcerated, he used to bring his paper resumes into job interviews.
But that was 20 years ago.
Holmes, now returning to the workforce, realized just how much employers have changed when he reached out for job assistance at the Skyland Workforce Center in Southeast D.C. There, Anne-Marie Bairstow, the center’s director, started off by typing up his resume into a digital file.
Like others, the D.C. native needed a job through this pandemic, and fast. Unlike the broader applicant pool, he had a few things stacked against him: two decades without work experience, a criminal record, no housing of his own, and no computer or internet connection of any kind.
But Holmes was determined to find something sustainable. “I always knew I was going to be able to find a job,” he said. “It just so happened that the program was here for me, and that was a blessing.”
Starting in June, Holmes, 55, took a training course called OSHA 30 at Skyland Workforce Center in D.C., which taught him safety regulations, CPR skills and how to flag for traffic around active construction zones. From there, he tried for two construction-related apprenticeships — one in electric work that didn’t have immediate work for him and another in masonry whose delays from brick back orders meant he couldn’t report to work just yet. Finally, in late October, Holmes landed what’s now his current apprenticeship, as a painter with Sparkle Painting Co. But even his first two paychecks from that program haven’t yet assured him a place to stay — or what’s normally the best route to employment, an on-ramp to the information superhighway.
Amid the pandemic’s sweeping layoffs, the region saw countless others exit the workforce, particularly those on the lower end of the wage spectrum. Some resigned because they couldn’t find a job that didn’t expose them to the coronavirus. Some retired early, burned out from Covid’s intensified pace. Some couldn’t work while juggling child care and limited transportation options as everything went remote. Many died from Covid-19, disproportionately so across communities of color. And still plenty of others got plain discouraged.
It’s led to a greater need for not just digital resources, but also the training and wherewithal to apply those tools to hold onto gainful employment and keep food on the table, especially for those in essential posts who have primarily been people of color and of lower financial means.
“We’ve lost a lot of people out of our labor force,” said Anthony Featherstone, executive director of WorkSource Montgomery, a nonprofit that offers workforce development. “That’s one of the biggest effects that we’ve seen, which is why we’ve invested in mobile
services and community impact because we want to go out and reengage these folks in our labor force to try to help them get back to employment.”
The high hurdles to employment:
The Skyland Workforce Center has seen the growing frustration reflected in their constituents’ inability to fill out everything from job applications to unemployment forms. And in many cases, folks aren’t fully aware of what aid is even out there, especially when crisis mode befalls.
“The systems for applying for unemployment in Maryland and Virginia are extremely hard to use,” Bairstow said. And when it comes to responding to a job ad, “it can be as small as just putting the date in the wrong format and it’s not accepted, and then it’s frustrating and people say, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ and end up giving up.”
In recent months, the center has helped 790 local residents find jobs and recorded 5,860 intakes from people seeking resources, Bairstow said. In addition to helping residents apply for rent relief through Stay D.C., the nonprofit reviews resumes, offers interview workshops, teaches digital literacy and skills training courses, and joins hands with other organizations and employers for job placements. The Skyland center’s Northstar Digital Literacy course, taught through a Minnesota partner nonprofit, starts with the basics, from turning on a computer, to double-clicking an email application, to opening and then closing windows.
WorkSource Montgomery operates two job centers in Germantown and Wheaton, plus more satellite locations open to anyone who walks in, be they unemployed, underemployed or already employed but interested in a new industry. The centers offer computer labs, internet, printers and ink for job searches, case management for job placements, professional development workshops, weekly job fairs and recruitment events, and stipends to cover job application and education fees.
“We’re not training just to train. We want them to be gainfully employed on the back end,” Featherstone said. “With the skills and the talent that our businesses need, we try to make sure our workforce and job seekers are going into programs so we can make that match, and so businesses can grow today and tomorrow for what’s coming down the pike.”
Those growing industries — and points of interest for the job seekers who usually approach WorkSource — are often in information technology and cybersecurity, health care, construction, hospitality, transportation and entrepreneurship, Featherstone said. The organization has matched employees with the likes of Marriott International Inc., Choice Hotels International Inc., Shapiro & Duncan Inc., and Holy Cross Hospital, subsidizing 50% to 75% of wage reimbursement for the first 12 to 16 weeks after individuals complete its workforce development programs.
WorkSource Montgomery plans to launch a mobile job center in April to reach more residents, outfitting a bus with six internal workstations and an external PA system and monitor for outside workshops. It will park at bus stops in low-income communities and set up shop, perhaps starting with a portable coding boot camp, Featherstone said.
“We want to make sure that we don’t just sit back and do our best to have folks come to us. Because we know where our services are most needed, we want to take our services to the community,” he said. “Ultimately, I think we’ll see a higher-skilled workforce in Montgomery County.”
When WorkSource Montgomery reaches out with its mobile job center, it’s taking particular notice of the county’s immigrant population.
The nonprofit already partners with immigrant-serving groups such as Latin American Youth Center, which has locations in Silver Spring, Riverdale Park and D.C., as well as Identity Inc., based in Rockville. But Featherstone points to its specialized programs for new residents who need help starting their own business or getting an IT job, offering English language classes, basic computer skills or a financial boost.
According to Employ Prince George’s, a Largo nonprofit that provides tools and resources for job seekers and employers in the county, analysis of the municipality’s unemployment data shows as of last summer, it lost 46,000 people from its workforce, an amount that is equivalent to losing eight years worth of job growth. Although exact demographic numbers are not available, CEO Walter Simmons noted that it’s clear that communities of color — who are typically employed in hospitality, construction and retail — have been disproportionately affected. But even as unemployment doubled in nearly every sector during the pandemic, per the report, IT was the least impacted as the entire world transitioned online.
So, Employ Prince George’s has been investing in its partnership with MedCerts, a division of Herndon ed-tech company Stride Inc., formerly called K12 Inc. MedCerts provides training for online IT and health care career certifications, hoping to make entry-level jobs in tech more accessible to anyone with interest.
“We got the governor’s office and businesses going back and forth on unemployment benefits and all,” Simmons said. “But the question they should be asking is: How can we incentivize underemployed and unemployed people to go back to work?”
The partnership is aimed at individuals who currently make less than $40,000 and have less than a bachelor’s degree — a population that’s often inordinately of color, female or underemployed. The 18-week paid online course, which piloted mid-May, ultimately aims to enroll up to 40 new participants at a time to prep for in-demand IT careers, many of them Black and Latino males in their 30s.
After completion of the program, students will receive an industry standard CompTIA certification, a $1,000 bonus and placement with both hiring partners of all sizes, from local governments to CVS Pharmacy, from HelpDesk to Capital One Financial Corp.
“We’re the bridge between job seekers and businesses,” said Sandy Mead, national director of workforce development for MedCerts. “That doesn’t just mean helping people get jobs in tech and health care. It means making online training more accessible for underserved communities. Prince George’s County was a good place to start because over 80% of employees in the IT industry in the region are white men.”
Its funding stemmed from a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Funds grant, redistributed American Rescue Plan funds from the state of Maryland and a grant of $1,000 per student from the Skill-Up Coalition, which is made up of members such as national nonprofit Jobs for the Future, edX and the Charles Koch Foundation. SkillUp Coalition was founded during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic from an $800,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In all, Prince George’s County was slated to receive about$11.8 million in American Rescue Plan funding.
In addition, Employ Prince George’s has launched Career Paths For All (CPFA) to provide career training and opportunities to the growing numbers of refugees and those seeking asylum in the county, while its Encore program, launched in early June, helps older job seekers, aged 50 and up, return to the workforce with career counseling, training and job fairs.
“Prince George’s County is the wealthiest majority-minority county in the area and the United States, and that’s because we don’t look at our underemployed, unemployed, underserved communities as statistics. We look at them as people we can help succeed. But if you look at the D.C. area, the fastest-growing, highest-paid group is white males, and EPG wants to change that,” Simmons said. “I would challenge other areas to start similar programs so you can fully reengage and utilize the potential of the entire workforce.”
Others are building and growing programs specifically for returning citizens and formerly incarcerated individuals regionwide. Georgetown University is in its fourth year of its School of Business Pivot Program to help those with prior convictions reenter the workforce. The school is also participating in the Business Roundtable’s newly launched Second Chance Business Coalition with other key employers, from Accenture to Verizon, to create viable career paths for those who otherwise face five times the national unemployment rate.
Ultimately, Holmes knows he’s one of the success stories today. After his two-year apprenticeship with Skyland Workforce Center is up, he can point to potential career options: getting his certification as a painter to help yield a raise, or branching out on his own, buying a van, gathering a team and building up his own client base as a stand- alone contractor.
“Apprenticeships are cool because they give you the know-how,” he said. “They give you that piece of paper that let them know, ‘Look, now he knows what he knows.’”
— Jin Ni contributed to this story