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Project Makes D.C. Residents Competitive In Challenging Job Market

By Pete Thompson, March 2011 (NPR)
March 22, 2011 - D.C.'s unemployment rate remains high, hovering near 10 percent, while it's more than 15 percent in Ward 7 and more than 23 percent in Ward 8.
Competing with a highly educated, well-connected work force can be a great challenge for many D.C. residents. In the second part of a two-part series, we look at one program that exists without any sources of funding working to overcome some of those obstacles.
The brick facade of the old International Graduate University sits on D Street near 13th in Southeast D.C. Inside, some rooms are boarded up beneath flickering hall lights. But down the hallway, the lights are bright in one classroom. Inside are 16 students sitting in front of computers -- all of whom are young adults. Some wear hats pulled tightly over their faces, others lean back in their chairs. But make no mistake -- they're here to learn skills to compete with D.C.'s highly educated work force.

"I feel that if our young people are properly trained, properly educated they can compete with anyone," says Raymond Bell, founder and teacher of the H.O.P.E. Project.

The project is a rigorous nine-month course designed to place students in IT jobs that pay at least $30,000 a year. Most of the students in this classroom didn't come with the connections or skills to compete in a nationally competitive job market.

"They are extremely unprofessional...and more importantly they lack the technical skills that I feel you need to have to find solid, meaningful and well-paying employment," Bell says.

But they do have raw tools. Out of 100 student applicants, Bell selected 16 for the current course. A big factor in those decisions was a required 400-word essay. Brandon Craig, who sits on the back row, wrote about working at a liquor store and wanting to find a way out.

"It was a lot of people coming in every single day, getting the same things, same size -- sometimes bigger -- and that kind of got a little bit depressing," he says.

Bell took note of Craig's honesty in his essay. Once he was admitted to the program, Craig says his outlook immediately changed.

"Mr. Bell's very easy to understand. He tells a lot of stories that relate to you, gives you a lot of training, a lot of support...that's what I like about the program," Craig says.

Two months in, Craig developed some contacts and found a job. He now works as a sub-contractor for HP Enterprises.

"It can only go up. I'm starting at the bottom, but it can only go up, so I feel good about the future," he says.

Of course, there's more to success than connections. A lot of factors contribute to unemployment in D.C., and the H.O.P.E. Project tries to address many of them. Across the room, Kaneisha Page says unlike many of the students here, she's always had good job contacts. But as a restaurant worker, she lacked certain skills.

"I know people who have their own careers [in the federal government]...but it's not about who you know, it's what you know," Page says.

Bell believes he is creating a blueprint for success. Out of the nine students who graduated during the program's last cycle, all nine got jobs in the IT industry -- though that's out of an original class size of 16.

"We set the bar high and there were a couple of people that just weren't cut out for the rigorous curriculum that we have," Bell says.

Unlike many job training programs, much of the course is focused on learning professionalism -- how to look and what to say during job interviews. And the students are learning to network. They tap into Bell's contacts, but, more importantly, they make their own network by creating a database of companies they've interviewed with to share with one another.

"A lot of people assume it's another computer training program...I hear to tell you its not. It's much more than that," he says.

The program relies entirely on volunteer teachers, which leads to questions about its sustainability. Bell says the program's success has attracted involvement from professionals, locals invested in seeing a turnaround in the D.C. unemployment rate.

"There are people finally realizing that if there is going to be any change in the condition of inner-city young people, it's gonna have to come from the people that were there themselves 20 years ago. I've challenged all of my friends and colleagues to stop driving home and driving past the inner city. Stop, get involved and devote some time," he says.

Right now the program is still new and relatively small, especially when you consider thousands of unemployed people in the D.C. area. But Bells says he always wanted to start small and first build a successful track record. He does hope to eventually expand into Virginia and Maryland.
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