Politics & Government

Charlotte’s economic mobility ranking is dead last. Will this jobs program help?

In response to the Keith Lamont Scott protests last year, the City Council wrote its “Letter to the Community,” saying it would focus on three areas: the police relationship with residents, building more affordable housing and creating jobs.

The city pledged an additional $750,000 for a new workforce development program – which would, the letter said, “increase jobs, training and opportunities for our youth and individuals with multiple barriers to employment.”

The city invested in Project PIECE, the Partnership for Inclusive Employment and Career Excellence.

The program was not created after the Scott shooting – the city had already decided earlier that year to invest $250,000 over two years in the program before the protests. But afterward, the city increased that grant to $1 million over three years.

The program is a partnership involving the city, Goodwill Industries and the Urban League, as well as dozens of companies that advise and counsel students. The Goodwill Industries campus on Wilkinson Boulevard hosts classes on residential and commercial construction, where about 20 students were learning math skills for building last week. They will also learn safety training as well as how to read blueprints, use power tools, interview and write a resume.

The classes are free.

Teacher Greg Alexander, who has worked in construction for nearly 30 years, including time with luxury home builder Simonini Homes, is proud that in his last class, two students found jobs at Lane Construction, a major road builder.

“I stress to them to persevere, to figure out what it is you want to do and stick with it,” he said. “Learn one or two things really well. Find something to be very good at. There is plenty of work out there.”

Nelson Villatora, who was hunched over a calculator, said he’s pleased with the class.

“I’m learning how to apply this math,” he said. “I’m learning pretty good things so far.”

The city said the additional money put in Project PIECE is helping more students find entry-level jobs in careers like residential and commercial construction, highway construction and installation of broadband and fiber optic cable. The city said 76 students have been placed into jobs since the program started in January.

Goodwill and the Urban League had already offered similar classes before the city got involved. Kevin Dick, the city’s economic development director, said the city’s money added career counseling and expanded the number of classes. He said the additional $750,000 will allow the program to serve an additional 55 people a year.

How much difference will the jobs program make – and will it be different than past efforts to help low-income workers and families?

It’s difficult for the city to try to lift low-income residents when the Census estimates that 44 people move to the city every day. Some of those new residents have few job skills.

“In general the idea is that we demonstrate a concern, we hold out hope, we keep working on it,” said City Council member Ed Driggs.

He said he hopes the city can expand the program with private sector help.

“The idea is that once we see the results, we start trying to build on it,” he said. “We can get private sector investment and have a proven model."

The Scott protests that turned violent came two years after a 2014 study from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley that showed poor children in Charlotte are the least likely to escape poverty among their peers in America’s 50 largest cities.

Charlotte’s low ranking embarrassed civic and political leaders.

But when compared with neighboring cities, Charlotte’s lack of economic mobility appears part of a larger problem in the South and in the Carolinas.

In the region, Charlotte’s economic mobility was about average – higher than the counties that are home to Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Fayetteville, Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Greenville, Roanoke and Richmond. The Carolinas, in fact, were home to cities and counties with some of the worst economic mobility rankings in the nation.

The job-training investment program is not the city’s first attempt to boost low-income Charlotteans. Compared with other programs, the $1 million investment may be much smaller in scale than other attempts to lift people out of poverty and into a career path.

▪ The City Council earlier this decade changed its incentive program to attract new businesses. Previously most of the tax rebates were given to companies with high-paying, white-collar jobs like Electrolux.

But council members wanted to also use incentives to attract businesses with lower-paying jobs, like call centers. The city hopes the jobs will give people a path out of poverty. Businesses such as Republic Services and Black & Decker have received grants to expand in Charlotte, even when the average pay of their jobs is $41,000 – below the city’s average wage of $49,000.

The city is considering adding a geographic component, which would give businesses more money for relocating in areas like east and west Charlotte. When the city attracts new businesses with incentives, they often relocate in areas like south Charlotte and University City.

“It’s because businesses have said that’s where they are not going, to places like District 5 (in east Charlotte),” said Pat Mumford, who heads the city’s economic development efforts. “There could be a higher potential for grant dollars. Maybe a company looking at the south Charlotte wedge would not be as high as in other parts of town.”

▪ The city had previously required contractors to set aside work for subcontractors who are small businesses. But in 2013 the City Council changed that program to target women- and minority-owned businesses. Council members, led by James Mitchell, supported the change so minority businesses could be helped by the city.

▪ The N.C. General Assembly prohibits Charlotte and other N.C. municipalities from raising the minimum wage, as many other U.S. cities have done. But the city has moved to increase the pay of its own employees. Starting this year, the minimum hourly wage for full-time city employees will be $15 an hour, which is $31,200.

City leaders hope that’s one way to push up private-sector wages for similar positions.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts said she measures the success of a program like PIECE by how “many people you have touched.” During her time as mayor, Roberts said she expanded the mayor’s Youth Employment Program from 300 students to 450.

“I have sent a lot of people (to the city) who have just gotten out of prison, or who have a hard time finding a job,” she said. “You can look at the number of people you have touched, who have started a small business or who have gotten a contract. There are ways to measure that.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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