Employers nationwide, mostly in service and low-skill industries, have struggled to find willing workers for many reasons — including fear of COVID-19 and lack of childcare options. Meanwhile, job seekers have struggled to find positions they find desirable. Several local D.C. programs are working to bridge the gap and place applicants into reliable jobs.
Unemployment in DC
Throughout the pandemic, many of the District’s businesses that provide services either furloughed the majority of their staff or closed operations completely. As pre-pandemic activities resume, many businesses are struggling to meet customer demand while striking out repeatedly on efforts to staff up again.
“As of June 2021, nearly half the small businesses that operated in January of 2020 were closed, and revenue was down by about 57%,” according to a D.C. Policy Center report commissioned by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Those closures were concentrated in “consumer-facing industries” such as leisure and hospitality, where employment remained 35% below February 2020 levels. In contrast, the report found, employment in office-based jobs was only 3% below February 2020 levels.
There were at least 51,000 job openings in D.C. in August. That’s nearly two openings for every unemployed person, according to data from the Department of Employment Services (DOES). But, employers say many positions remain unfilled.
For example, Tryst Trading Company owns six different restaurants throughout the District and one catering company. Before the pandemic, the company had about 340 employees across all locations. That number dropped to six in March 2020.
Company owner Constantine Stavropoulos said the past year and a half has been the most challenging of his 23 years in the restaurant industry.
“We’ve never experienced this kind of hiring dilemma, or crisis, I think that’s the best way to describe it,” Stavropoulos said.
Stavropoulos has slowly reopened four of his six restaurants. He kept in contact with the 340 people he let go and has offered nearly all of them the option to return.
But only about 100 of the company’s former employees have returned. To fill the gap and keep up with increasing demand, Stavropoulos recruited about 40 new employees. However, he is still looking to hire so he can resume pre-pandemic operations at all seven of his businesses.
In Wards 7 and 8, residents are experiencing unemployment at higher rates than the rest of the District, according to DOES data. In August, Ward 8 had an unemployment rate of 15.5%, the highest in the city and more than five times higher than the unemployment rates in Wards 2 or 3. Ward 8’s August 2021 unemployment rate was four percentage points higher than the same ward’s unemployment rate in January 2020, while in Wards 2 and 3, the August unemployment rate was actually lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Job search data show there is a gap between the types of jobs open and what job applicants seek
Stavropoulos said that under normal circumstances, there would be a “floodgate of applicants” anytime he created a hiring post. Now, he can’t find enough people to fully staff all of his locations. He said other restaurant owners have told him they’re experiencing the same obstacle.
Research conducted by the Indeed Hiring Lab (Indeed) shows that the percentage of 18-64 year old adults seeking jobs in the U.S. has not changed since June 2021, when Indeed first began collecting data. Last month, 11.8% of people surveyed were “actively looking, urgently.” Another 16.9% were “actively looking, not urgently,” and 43.7% were passively looking. More than 72% of the 5,000 people surveyed are looking for work.
Throughout the U.S., there are still many job openings.
Another set of data collected by Indeed shows that U.S. job postings on the Indeed site have increased compared to pre-pandemic levels. As of Oct. 8, there were 46.1% more postings compared to February 2020.
There is a disconnect between the type of jobs available and what job seekers are looking for. To combat this, Stavropoulos said he is working to make sure his job openings are attractive.
Promoting benefits like health insurance, vacation time, in-store benefits and a competitive salary are crucial in finding employees, Stavropoulos said.
Stavropoulos is not alone. Indeed reported that more job postings include hiring incentives such as raises and signing bonuses. Nearly 5% of postings on Indeed include an incentive, up from 2.3% last year.
“The conventional outlets are just not yielding anything, we don’t know what to do, honestly,” Stavropoulos said.
There are many reasons job seekers may not be looking urgently for jobs. Survey respondents told Indeed that reasons they are not urgently job searching include family care responsibilities, having a spouse who is employed, having a financial cushion from savings and COVID-19 fears. Survey respondents listed all of those reasons, including pandemic fears, as more important than receiving unemployment checks.
Hiring programs in DC
Friendship Place, a local housing and homeless services nonprofit, invests significantly in job training. According to the organization’s website, their AimHire program helped place 80 people in jobs in 2020 with an average pay of $15.85 per hour. In the same year, an additional 120 clients got jobs through other programs that Friendship Place partners with.
The AimHire program focuses on finding suitable jobs based on the client’s interests and skills, AimHire division director David Vincenty said. Funding is provided mainly by donations from private parties; in addition, the U.S. Department of Labor provides funding specifically for homeless veterans.
Vincenty said AimHire has created a strong network of employers who reach out when they are hiring. He said that right now, the best way for AimHire clients to increase their employability is to develop basic information technology (IT) skills. IT competence is one of the main skills employers seek, Vincenty said.
D.C. Coalition for the Homeless (DCCFH) is another nonprofit that provides housing and training for people seeking jobs. They serve only individuals living with homelessness. Clients stay in one of many residential facilities while taking classes on resume building, job skills, interview preparation and financial literacy.
Employment specialist Jerome Miller said clients of DCCFH typically have a stable job and are able to set up a bank account and provide housing for themselves within six months of working with DCCFH. According to its 2020 annual report, the organization helped 60 people secure employment last year.
“When they become employed, we can see a difference. They hold themselves different. They dress different,” Miller said.
An obstacle both Friendship Place and DCCFH said they have is placing people who were recently incarcerated. Both organizations are asking employers to give those clients a second chance.
“If you serve your time, why have this label for life?” Vincenty said. He encouraged businesses to use their power to help those who are willing and able to work.
Finding sustainable jobs
Being interested in your job is a major aspect of maintaining it and staying happy with your work, AimHire client Dorren Nelson said.
“If it doesn’t challenge me, I’m bored,” she said.
Nelson said she appreciates the way staff at AimHire look at her resume and talk through different options. That feedback has been extremely helpful in finding a job that interests her, she said.
“With [Friendship Place] they take into consideration your experience, your education and how they can help you,” Nelson said.
Nelson said that in the past she was advised to “just take whatever was available.” Oftentimes, she said, this meant a job in the restaurant industry or at a grocery store. For someone with a degree in computer science and experience in accounting, neither option was suitable.
Russell Diggs found himself in need of higher income when his mother died in 2017. He had lived with her and split the cost of rent and utilities with her. Diggs could not afford to support himself on his own income. He found help at DCCFH.
Diggs and Nelson both said taking initiative and treating the job search like an actual job were crucial in finding something that worked for them. About four years after his mother died, Diggs now works as an engineer at D.C. Marriott Hotels. He lives on his own.
“Things are looking really good for me,” he said.
Nelson said she appreciates the work Friendship Place has done for her and her 10-year-old daughter. “I think the name speaks well of it,” she said. “It’s a very good support system.”
A focus on young adults
The Potomac Job Corps Center reopened its enrollment program Oct. 15. The center works with students aged 16-24 years old in job training and job placement. The program offers those services and housing on its 66 acre Blue Plains campus at no cost to students or their families.
Job Corps is the nation’s “largest free education and job training program for young adults,” their website states. Approximately 50,000 students attend Job Corps throughout the country, with focused training in either business and finance, construction, health care, homeland security, or hospitality.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh spoke at the enrollment event, telling the prospective trainees the center is one of many beneficial resources that help young adults find steady jobs.
“We have an opportunity right now to really do some amazing things,” Walsh said in an interview. “We have to rouse so much support and love around these young people to make sure that they don’t end up on the street forever, to make sure they have a pathway to a career.”
Youth are a major focus for Congress, Walsh said. This is an aspect of the large legislative package that is currently being negotiated: providing opportunities to young people, he said.
“It’s about how do we lay down the foundations for the future, Walsh said to the crowd. ”That’s what the agenda is all about. Job Corps is that front door to a career for so many people.”
Help is available
From private sector employment specialists to government officials, members of the D.C. community said help will be there for residents who want a job.
At the Potomac Job Corps Center, Walsh emphasized that those seeking help will be served: “We’re going to make sure that every single young person that walks through that door at Job Corps, if they want, if they want to put the work in and they want to dream and they want to be successful, that when they walk out that door on that last day they’re here, they’re on a path to success.”
For older adults who are seeking new jobs, Miller of DCCFH said that it is possible as long as they are willing to put effort into their job search.
“Most people can be saved. They can still be helped if they want it,” Miller said.
Diggs said his experience at DCCFH lined up with that sentiment: “If you help yourself, they’re gonna help you.”
Diggs said he would suggest other unemployed residents look into available resources because there are a lot of opportunities available.
“There’s jobs out there, you just have to go and look for them. No one will come and hand you a job,” he said.