Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The rap on Vincent Gray as a mayor too distracted by scandal to accomplish much overlooks one major accomplishment.  Gray has made more progress addressing chronic unemployment in his first year than have any of his predecessors in their entire terms.

Mayor Gray’s One City One Hire campaign is directly responsible for the hiring of 1,400 previously jobless District residents.  While this accomplishment has received little notice, for these 1,400 families Mayor Gray has moved mountains in his first year in office.

Perhaps the criticism of Gray as unaccomplished reveals more about the lack of interest in policies to address crisis-level unemployment on the part of DC’s political class than it does about Mayor Gray.

Politicians often release estimates of jobs they created, and perhaps cynicism around such estimates explains the lack of credit given to One City One Hire for the hiring of 1,400 jobless residents. 

The difference here is that the leader of One City One Hire, Director of Employment Services Lisa Mallory, actually knows who these 1,400 people are.  She knows who they are because her staff personally introduced them to their current employers.

Understanding One City One Hire requires understanding that one of the biggest barriers to employment in DC has nothing to do with skills, criminal records or addiction issues.  A major barrier to employment is the lack of trust by local employers in jobless residents, particularly those east of the Anacostia River.

While this barrier is not often mentioned by the local media, any job training provider can attest to its reality, and the discouraging effect it has on District residents who are otherwise job-ready. 

Chris Hart-Wright, Executive Director of Strive DC which works with chronically unemployed District residents, says she spends much of her time seeking to build trust on the part of local employers in her clients.  She says that all training providers are doing the same thing, and that they need the city to use its influence to play this role so they can focus on training and case management.

That’s what One City One Hire is all about.  Run by the Business Services Group within the Department of Employment Services (DOES), One City One Hire asks local employers if they will consider a small number of resumes pre-screened by DOES for their open positions. 

Director Mallory has transferred DOES employees into the operation of working with employers to understand the requirements of particular positions and evaluating thousands of resumes of jobless DC residents to fill those positions.

Now, overcoming the trust gap between local employers and jobless DC residents is only one of several difficult steps that need to be taken to address chronic unemployment.  But the success of Gray and Mallory in conquering this first barrier raises hopes that they will live up to their promises on other barriers to employment.

First, Mallory has committed to transforming the One-Stop Centers that are responsible for empowering jobless residents with access to training, transportation and child care benefits, and other resources needed to get a job.  This is no small task, as these centers have historically been more like DMV centers in the 1990s.

It will require strong leadership in each One-Stop, implementation of a uniform assessment process so that employees are trained in uncovering and addressing barriers to employment, and tight coordination with agencies like DHS that can address barriers like transportation and child care. 

If this transformation doesn’t occur, then the body that oversees One-Stop funding, the Workforce Investment Council, could conceivably pull all funding from DOES and contract with a private agency to run One-Stops.

Second, Mallory has committed to providing data on jobless residents who enter One-Stop Centers that would provide the first ever profile of DC’s jobless and their barriers to employment.  Finally, Mallory has committed to holding training providers accountable to metrics of job placement.

These are significant challenges, but the success of Mallory and Gray in addressing the challenge of trust in jobless DC residents should give us cautious optimism they can be met. 

Tackling chronic unemployment is not optional.  It is essential to improving education outcomes of the 30% of District children living in poverty.  It is essential to limiting gentrification and ensuring all residents benefit from the District’s resurgence in recent years. 

Gray deserves credit for his accomplishments thus far and greater interest in his vision for finishing the job on unemployment.

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Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.