Dreams of jobs training hit realty; Atlanta vows it won’t surrender

Less than 10 percent of those who applied for a job-training program initiated by Falcons team owner Arthur Blank passed the drug/alcohol test required for acceptance to the program, according to Atlanta City Councilmember Ivory L. Young, Jr.

Young cited the figure to illustrate the challenge of job training for individuals who have troubles past or present. Of 160 applicants, 18 were accepted, he said.

The issue of jobs-training is again becoming relevant in Atlanta, as the new Falcons stadium creates jobs and filmmaker Tyler Perry prepares to build and operate as many as 17 studios at the shuttered Fort McPherson.

In a related development, a new report suggests the reemergence of redlining in some of the very Atlanta neighborhoods that struggle with low household income and higher rates of unemployment. Georgia Tech Professor Dan Immergluck’s report predicts some of these areas will take a “very long time” to recover value lost during the great recession.

Workforce training is a well-worn issue in urban affairs. It’s also an issue in which politics make it hard to do much of anything, because any one thing will never adequately address the scope of the condition.

Laying blame contributes to the issue’s complexity, Young said.

“Some would condemn this entire population – shame on them,” Young said during the Oct. 10 meeting of the council’s Community Development/Human Relations Committee.

“But they are our neighbors, and more often than not the neighborhoods that raised them, they stay there,” Young said. “They are less able to compete in a very competitive job market. I’m asking for your help to help a similar demographic as the people I serve.”

Evidently, shaming is a common community response for the applicants who failed the academic and/or drug and/or alcohol requirements of Westside Works and other adult training programs. Westside Works is the brightest of lights in the stadium neighborhoods, as residents hope to benefit from Blank’s promise to help some of them get construction jobs.

Meanwhile, Atlanta is taking steps intended to help keep youngsters out of trouble, and to train adults for meaningful jobs.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, with support from the Atlanta City Council, has re-opened recreation centers in a bid to give youngsters a constructive place to spend time. The centers address the notion of idle hands and the devil’s workshop.

At his second inauguration in January, Reed garnered a standing ovation when he said the city would help troubled individuals get back on track. Reed called it a human rights issue.

“If you put the gun down, we’ll put a book in your hands, a job in your hands; we’ll work to put a future back in your hands,” Reed said. “Prisoner reentry is not simply a criminal justice issue … or race – it’s a human rights issue.”

In August, Reed addressed the city’s long-troubled job training program by naming one of his top advisors to retool the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency.

The agency’s management has drawn fire for years, and Reed acted amidst the crescendo of an internal audit, an ongoing federal criminal investigation, and an external review.

The pressure is on Michael Sterling, the new AWDA director, to be quick in providing results.

Civic leaders and councilmembers voiced hopes that the AWDA will fulfill the promise of federal funds that are provided to Atlanta to teach residents the skills needed to get and keep a meaningful job.

“Sir, you are our best hope; our next generation hangs on you,” said Tony Torrance, a community leader working to clean the Proctor Creek basin. “We appreciate you for revamping AWDA. We appreciate the new group trying to push the agency forward in a new direction because it’s going to take that, where this city is going is going to take that.”

Councilmember Joyce Sheperd called on Sterling to create training programs specifically for the film industry. Skills are unique to that industry, she said, and she requested a report within 90 days on steps AWDA has taken.

“I know it’s tough,” Sheperd said. “But as we roll out jobs in our community, we have to give them training.”

Councilmember Michael Julian Bond noted that the problems associated with skills shortages and fitness for work date back for generations. Failure to fix them now will be a mark on the legacy of public servants, he said.

“Something has to be done, in the city of Atlanta … about poverty that has existed in Atlanta for all my life, and I’m 48,” Bond said. “If it continues to persist, those of us who have given public service will not have done very much.”

But it was Young who struck the strongest notes.

“You help those people , and we get the others and we will give you everything you need,” Young said. “God has placed you here for a very unique purpose. You’re not carrying that by yourself.”

Sterling had come to the meeting prepared to present a quarterly update on changes he has made in AWDA. He had talked about initiating efforts to help individuals find jobs, to restructure the office staff, to recovering a state award that had been withdrawn.

Sterling’s concluded his remarks to the committee with these comments:

“We are developing a timeline, a project dashboard. After we finalize that project dashboard, I’ll be happy to share with members of the committee as well, and the entire city council.

“The first step is to get strong,” Sterling said.