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Lifting All Boats

The city’s new work force innovation center seeks to link job seekers with jobs that actually exist.



Among the roughly 8,500 Richmond residents who are unemployed and looking for work is Isaiah Murphy. He's 22, black and didn't graduate from high school, but has his GED. This combination puts him among a subset of the unemployed experiencing jobless rates at least three times higher than the city as a whole.

Murphy has lived most of his life in Creighton Court, and says he'd come to dislike the person he became when he entered his neighborhood. Too much negative energy, he says: "It just really corrupts me in a certain way."

Every weekday, Murphy makes his way to Marshall Plaza and a class at the city's new Center for Workforce Innovation, which celebrated its official opening last week. The center is a partnership of Richmond's Economic Development and Social Services departments, and is the base of operations for its work force pipeline, a three-year-old, evolving incubator. Here, everything begins with a scouring of in-demand jobs, with forecasts of job markets, and then moves backward to training for those jobs. Each student has an individualized plan and a mentor.

Beyond employment, the aim is to equip people well enough to help them move into stable work paying at least $14.44 an hour, a wage that might make a dent in the city's 26-percent poverty rate.

The Workforce Development Program's administrator, Jamison Manion, comes out of the private sector and hasn't yet learned a bureaucrat's careful speech. Part salesman, part behavioral-systems-analysis geek, he's fond of saying such things as: "A rising tide does not lift all boats. It lifts all boats only if: a) you have a boat, b) if it's in the water, c) if it's seaworthy."

The work force pipeline pilot served 550 people in the last three years. All received some version of a Manion speech informing them that the program can't guarantee a job and that if they see themselves as clients rather than participants, they're in the wrong program. Of those 550 participants, 54 percent found work at average wages of $8.50 an hour, he says. Good, but for a city in which 50,000 people live in poverty, Manion says, "it's nothing, absolutely nothing. It's like draining the ocean through a straw — when it's raining."

There are 16,400 more jobs than active job seekers in the Richmond region, he says, and keeping people out of many of those jobs is lack of skills and transportation. The target is to train 1,000 people a year by 2018. It will cost about $2,500 per person to close the skills gap, Manion says. And no, he says, he doesn't expect the city to cover a $2.5 million annual tab. "We can't do this alone," he says. The center is seeking to work with more agencies and nonprofits that have staffing and space and share a common purpose.

Murphy's class is the first in the new Workforce Center. He's one of 10 students studying for four certifications, including administrative/customer service and forklift operation. At 22, Murphy is the youngest in the class. The two oldest are 56. One is Gianfranco Belviso, an Italian immigrant who was laid off and went back to Italy in a vain search for work. "Unemployment is like influenza," Belviso says. "It's everywhere."

The other is Freeman S. Ward, who deliberately models meticulous dress and speech for the younger students. "This class has given me purpose," he says. "It's allowing me to participate in life. We can make a difference. We will make a difference. People are watching us."

The Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare or the education-training portion of the food stamp program covers the class costs for these students, most of whom face multiple challenges. Several have felony records, and they're candid about how difficult it is to stay away from the street life they've known since they were children. But they say they're parents now and weary of the hustle. "Who's gonna raise my son if I go to jail?" one student says.

Their teacher is Wilma Harris. She works for Richmond Public Schools adult education and is a former business-services manager with the federal Workforce Investment Act program. A warm, no-nonsense woman, Harris says her students' biggest challenge lies in their lack of communication and relationship skills. "Building relationships is not just a job skill," she tells them, "it's a life skill."

Murphy applied for the classes through the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which has supported the work force pipeline since its inception. "I don't want just a job. I want a career," he says. "I want something that fulfills me."

The class, which started two months ago, will wrap up next month. Last week, on Nov. 18, the first among them landed a job. Troy Chapman, 39, a barber — a man not too proud to hawk bottles of water up and down Broad Street for 50 cents so he could pay the light bill — was hired as a machine operator for $9.75 an hour at Aspen Products.

"Today," Chapman says, "they're giving me my own machine."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect unemployment numbers in the city of Richmond proper, rather than the larger metropolitan area.

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