Urban Research Monitor

While the U.S. economy creates more and more jobs, inner cities still are plagued by high unemployment. Two recent studies focus on different ways that urban policymakers and practitioners can alleviate this persistent situation. Making Connections: A Study of Employ-ment Linkage Programs assesses the effectiveness of local government initiatives that give firms incentives to hire more inner-city residents and improve the flow of information between firms and job seekers. Overcoming Roadblocks on the Way to Work: Bridges to Work Field Report analyzes a demonstration effort to transport job seekers to firms in the suburbs, where job growth is highest.

Together, the two reports suggest why both approaches are needed. If employers are not given incentives to hire disadvantaged urban residents, and if these residents are not given the information and support they need to get and keep the jobs offered, simply transporting job seekers to the suburbs will not be effective. Likewise, if a person learns about a possible job but cannot find transportation to the firm, nothing is accomplished.

In Making Connections, Freida Molina looks at the effectiveness of three linkage programs in Portland, Oregon; Berkeley, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although linkage programs may seem to be a good idea, their actual results often have not been measured. The report finds that a number of factors affect linkage programs, among which are the health of the local economy, the education and skill levels of the workforce, the extent to which employers are engaged, the availability and quality of economic development incentives, the lowering of barriers formed by traditional employer recruitment networks, and the capacity of employment service providers. To succeed with linkage strategies, communities need to reform their workforce systemically—in private- and public-sector contexts—and regionwide rather than just start programs piecemeal.

Molina’s report is full of useful ideas that local governments can adapt. For instance, the Berkeley and Portland governments have used their fiscal and zoning powers to encourage employers to make hiring agreements. In Minneapolis, where there tends to be a shortage of workers, employment service providers are able to elicit firms’ cooperation by offering the prospect of a better flow of job candidates. The report concludes that “the country would benefit greatly from expansion and replication of employment linkage programs.”

Overcoming Roadblocks reports on the Bridges to Work (BTW) project undertaken by Public/Private Ventures in five cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. This report describes the lessons gained from these five local efforts spanning approximately 2 years. Authors Mark Elliot, Beth Palubinsky, and Joseph Tierney note one crucial thing they learned is that the context for such efforts must be workforce development: “When we launched Bridges to Work, we thought that the employment component would be straightforward and the transportation complicated. We quickly realized that the heart of any employment strategy . . . [is] the ability . . . to match prospective workers to jobs successfully.” The success of such a strategy, in turn, depends on the kinds of linkages that Making Connections describes.

Both reports suggest the need for policymakers to begin their efforts to fight inner-city unemployment by looking at their local labor situation in the broadest possible context. This means, in essence, to focus on the entire system—firms, job seekers, employment service providers, educational resources, and the intermediary agencies that link these elements together. This system includes the transportation network to get workers to jobs. This systemic view integrates the various elements and recommendations of studies, such as the two described here. By looking at the mismatch between jobs and job seekers within the context of this system, one can begin to see the gaps that must be filled. Perhaps an existing agency can be strengthened to promote better communication links between firms and service providers, or a new agency may be created to meet a crucial need of the system, as in the case of BTW’s efforts to provide transportation.

Overcoming Roadblocks views this system from a spatial perspective. The key underlying factor is the increasing need for inner-city residents to commute to the suburbs. This reversal of traditional commuting patterns has been accompanied by several other challenges—notably the reluctance of traditional job-placement agencies to cooperate with efforts such as BTW, which they tend to perceive as a competing service. Therefore, recruitment of job-ready, prospective bus riders became an unexpected addition to the BTW program’s agenda. Once the riders arrived at the firms, the program staff found that it was also necessary to “devote considerable time trying to ensure” that job seekers were well matched with jobs. Overcoming Roadblocks finds that communities seeking to develop a reverse-commuting effort need to pay attention to three related issues: “the location and requirements of jobs, the residence and skills of job seekers, and the logistics of transporting workers to and from jobs.” Finally, the report states that “transportation alone [authors’ emphasis] will do little to connect inner-city residents to suburban jobs.” In view of the complex challenge of providing a ride-to-work service for poor inner-city people, a variety of supports—only one of which is transportation—needs to be provided. Thus, the necessity of constantly attending to the whole system as described in Making Connections.

The whole workforce system, however, is very complex—as the problem of providing a transportation service for reverse commuters illustrates. Overcoming Roadblocks notes that the service must have highly flexible and extensive routes while being punctual and reliable, be able to respond to emergencies, and not become sidetracked by such issues as childcare rides. The challenge of building such a service might seem daunting for any typically overextended urban agency.

Similar complexities exist for the other main spatial, social, economic, and human aspects of the workforce system. For instance, the model that Making Connections outlines notes the need for local political commitment and cites the examples of Berkeley and Portland—both famously and atypically adventurous when it comes to government and development policies. Cities with more traditional political cultures might not fit into such a systemic model.

At the firm and employment-service level, similar complexities intervene. Both studies note that firms and service agencies tend to guard their own recruitment systems, which suit their priorities. Thus, they tend not to want to cooperate with innovative efforts to integrate them into the larger system, whether to provide linkages or transportation. This points to the underlying socioeconomic fragmentation that characterizes the metropolitan economy. While reforming the workforce development system is crucial, both studies point to the great challenge that this reform involves.

In the end, both reports suggest that the ultimate context for attacking urban unemployment is people, not programs or systems. Although the programs described have great merit, they can succeed only to the extent that people—from corporate and government leaders to employment-service practitioners to job seekers themselves—are committed to empowering the disadvantaged urban job seeker.

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