Lifting all the boats

Growing up on Washington's Columbia Heights, Lance Goode came to accept harsh contrasts.

From a crumbling tenement rooftop he looked out at the gleaming Capitol dome. And over the years he saw passersby change from mothers pushing strollers to gangs pushing drugs.

Last fall, though, Mr. Goode turned away from the streets. He took a job as an apprentice carpenter and now he has no time for his old street friends.

"I was running around, I was following the wrong people, but I got my mind set that I wanted to turn things around," says Goode. "Now I've got a great opportunity and I'd be a fool not to stay with it."

Millions of disadvantaged workers like Goode are staging one of their biggest workplace breakthroughs since the civil rights movement three decades ago. For the first time, they are joining mainstream labor - bringing home paychecks, rising from the lowest rung in the work force.

With solid jobs, the workers see a road out of poverty and crime and a route to prosperity. They also are gaining a credibility that could help them avoid layoffs in the next slump, say experts.

"If tight labor markets last, you will have groups of workers who are traditionally out of the labor force piling up several years of work experience in the private sector for the first time," says Harry Holzer, chief economist at the US Labor Department. "That would make them less vulnerable in the next downturn."

Although barriers to job opportunity run deep, disadvantaged workers are buoyed by the strongest demand for labor in years. Unemployment has plunged to a 29-year low. And the jobless rate for blacks hovers at record lows. (See chart, page 15.)

"People at all skill levels, but especially at lower skill levels, are becoming more important, profitable, and essential to an organization," says Peter Eide, manager of labor law policy at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

The strong labor market has helped the needy cope with cuts this decade in welfare and other entitlements. Since 1993 it has helped 2 million people shift from welfare to work. And it has apparently made streets safer. "In cities where the labor market is the tightest," says Mr. Holzer, "crime rates have fallen the most."

As workers like Goode hold down their first long-term jobs, they improve self-confidence and work habits. If laid off, they are now more likely to aggressively seek another job. So during the next downturn disadvantaged workers could join unemployment lines in less disproportionate numbers than in previous recessions, experts say.

The workers are also exploding myths that have discouraged hiring. And many bosses find their new employees to be more diligent and skillful than they had thought.

"Recently we have seen firms unable to find new hires in the suburbs going back to the cities," says Gordon Richards, an economist at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. "There are some indications they have been surprised at the quality of workers and their ability to meet the skill levels they need."

"With the unemployment rate falling and test scores improving, maybe employers are waking up to a part of the work force they'd rejected," says William Spriggs, director of research at the National Urban League in Washington.

The intense demand for labor has also inspired innovative ways to find jobs for the chronically idle. The US Labor Department plans over the next five years to target $1 billion in grants to grass-roots efforts at sparking employment in the inner city. Such programs range from attuning training to business needs to helping youths gain the contacts and social skills vital to gaining work. (See story, page 15.)

But these efforts, combined with the longest peacetime expansion in US history, have yet to sweep away inequalities for disadvantaged workers. Black unemployment, at 8.1 percent, is still more than double the 3.6 percent rate for whites.

Moreover, many inner-city workers lack the contacts crucial for landing well-paying work, and their skills are either insufficient or poorly matched to jobs. And racism still inhibits opportunity, experts say. This is especially hard for black teenagers, whose 33 percent unemployment rate dwarfs the 13 percent rate for white teens.

"Employers assume a young black male is less well qualified just by reason of race," says Ms. Simms. "They figure," says Goode, "that all black guys are the same way, that we all sell drugs."

To social workers and other experts, toppling such barriers is especially urgent. Even today's high-octane economy will one day sputter, tossing millions of people out of work without the public aid of prior slumps. Better to move idle people onto payrolls now so they can gain seniority and improve their chances of holding onto their jobs.

"The next recession will be worse," says Mr. Spriggs: "It will be the first in decades without a solid safety net."

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