As a teenager without a high-school diploma, Lance Goode sized up the slumping local economy and figured his odds of getting a good job: "No way."
Still, for years Mr. Goode looked for work in the pocked red-brick walk-ups and shabby storefronts of Washington's Columbia Heights. He briefly worked at a car rental and in construction, but spent much of his time with other jobless youths.
Two years ago, though, police began jailing local gang leaders. Goode was dogged by the memory of his adoptive parents leaving early each weekday for work. And the neighborhood economy started to stir, encouraged by plans to build a subway stop.
"I saw my buddies mind-set wasn't the same as mine, and the only way I saw myself doing something was to leave them alone," Goode says.
So Goode enrolled in a 12-month program called YouthBuild USA. Now he works full time as an apprentice and is in training to become a journeyman carpenter in three years. "Then I'll make 20 bucks an hour, at least," he says, "and I'll be able to start my own business."
With the job market better than at any time in nearly three decades, millions of disadvantaged workers like Goode are moving from idleness to employment.
But Goode's story shows that, even during the longest peacetime expansion in US history, disadvantaged workers hit many hurdles as they seek a steady job. Many of the poorly educated minorities, former welfare recipients, and other hard-pressed groups manage to find work only by joining innovative programs like YouthBuild.
"It's really frustrating when you're trying to get work and you can't - that's when guys go and do things they shouldn't do," Goode says. While local supermarket or pharmacy jobs pay from $6 to $8 an hour, drug deals yield many times that.
"A lot of youth are just settling for selling drugs or, if they're women, for stripping," he says: "They figure it's easy. They don't have to go out and work and punch a clock and worry about rules."
Many youths lack connections and role models and often must try to get by with drug-addicted parents or without a father or mother at home. Also, Goode says that in Columbia Heights a rising proportion of Latino residents tend to hire Spanish speakers and spurn job seekers among long-standing black residents.
Along with racism, Goode says young black men must overcome reverse sexism. "More times than not, they'll give a young black lady [a job] before a young black guy," Goode says.
Labor department data seem to bear this out: The unemployment rate for black teenage women is 30 percent compared with 33 percent for black teenage men.
Goode got the big break crucial for finding a solid footing in the work force from YouthBuild. The federally supported program prepared him for the high-school equivalency exam through classroom instruction.
Youthbuild also provided hands-on training in construction. With other neighborhood youths, Goode renovated local low-income housing for a nonprofit community group. The program aims to build skills and self-confidence, kindle careers, and revive neighborhoods. The more than 90 YouthBuild projects nationwide have built or renovated 2,000 low-income housing units since 1993.
"Young people who join YouthBuild wear a lot of risk labels but their lives can change and they can come out of the program with a renewed sense of self and hope," says Laurie Kaplan, executive director of the YouthBuild program on Columbia Heights.
From YouthBuild, Goode was hired by the city housing department and accepted in a union apprenticeship program. He works full time, except for two days each month when he studies carpentry and welding at a union school.
"This is only the beginning," says Goode: "Maybe after I'm a journeyman I'll start a business, buy a property, and renovate it - help turn around the neighborhood."