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Working Washington: Only 36% in government

(Published September 9, 1999)


Staff Writer

Each workday, more than 618,000 people get up, get dressed, likely gulp down some coffee and go to work in the District of Columbia.

But only about 36 percent of workers in the nationís capital actually work in government jobs. The rest work in private business and industry ó driving cabs, repairing cars, trimming lawns, teaching math, editing copy, suing corporations, transplanting kidneys or performing hundreds of other tasks that keep the city running.

Most come from the suburbs ó they have to, says U.S. Department of Laboranalyst Jim Sibely. According to Labor Department statistics, the number of working-age residents in the District is much lower than the number of jobs. Besides, plenty of D.C. residents work in the suburbs. Either way, workers pack themselves into Metro trains or crawl through traffic ó sometimes for hours ó just to get to work.

More than 187,000 people work for the federal government in Washington. Thatís 14 percent fewer than worked for Uncle Sam 10 years ago, but still enough to fill the grand buildings that surround the National Mall and keep the servers at the Capital Grille busy during happy hour.

About 33,000 people work for the government of the District of Columbia. Their work varies from inspecting cars on Half Street SW, to forecasting revenue at One Judiciary Square, to saving lives in the emergency room of D.C. General Hospital.

About 44 percent of D.C. government workers live in the city ó 47 percent live in Maryland and just over 8 percent live in Virginia, according to the D.C. Office of Personnel.

Although the nationís capital has a natural reputation as a government town, Labor Department data show government jobs have declined considerably in recent years. Now, itís private sector jobs that are on the rise, but mostly in the suburbs.

About 75,000 new private sector jobs were created in the Washington metropolitan area last year. The number of those jobs located in the District of Columbia: 2 percent.

That the vast majority of new jobs are located in the suburbs is not necessarily bad news for D.C. residents, experts say. It just means they have to learn to reverse the typical big city commute.

"The greatest economic trend in this area is regionalization," said William D. Lecos, senior vice president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "Itís not as critical where the paycheck is earned ó what matters is where itís spent."

Although the Districtís unemployment rate usually hovers at three times the rate of its suburban neighbors, the rate is on the way down. In July unemployment among D.C. residents was 6.6 percent, down from 9.6 percent in July 1998. At the same time, the labor force (defined as workers and those seeking work) has grown steadily every month this year, according to the Labor Department.

Though most new jobs are located in the suburbs today, two big projects now underway could change that in the next five years. The new convention center in Shaw is expected to create 10,000 jobs in construction, maintenance, service and management by 2005.

In 2002, the old Navy Yard on the Anacostia riverfront in Southeast will become home to 5,000 federal employees whose offices are being shifted from Crystal City. Supplying those workers with housing, parking, food, dry cleaning and other services could create 20,000 additional jobs. Two hotels are planned for the site just to accommodate the Navyís important visitors.

The D.C. Department of Employment Services predicts the next five years will see big demands for professional jobs in engineering, management, and business services, as well as entry-level positions for security guards, food handlers, janitors, secretaries. Human services workers will also be in high demand and the department forecasts high demand for home health aides, residential counselors and social workers.

But the big question in many peopleís minds is whether D.C. residents will be qualified to land those jobs.

"The hard-core unemployed population is not job-ready," said Steven Fuller, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a specialist on the regional economy. "They need training just to show up on time."

The Districtís long-troubled public schools and shrinking vocational programs have left a generation of residents with few marketable skills. And so suburban residents get the jobs, Fuller said.

He observed that most construction and janitorial jobs located in the District are currently filled by Hispanic workers who live in the suburbs.

In the long run, improving D.C. schools will lead to a better-trained workforce. In the short run, the Workforce Investment Board ó a body of private industry leaders to be appointed by the mayor in the coming months ó will decide how to spend federal dollars allocated for job training.

Councilman David Catania, R-At large, also has some ideas to help city residents find jobs. First, he says, fix transportation.

"At long last we must address the reverse commute," he said. "Our Metro system is designed to bring people from the suburbs into the city. There are thousands of jobs in Northern Virginia that our people canít get to. We need to change schedules, change routes, maybe add signs in other languages or subsidize transportation for the working poor."

Catania also advocates a tax credit for employers who hire people under 21.

"We need to worry about under-21 age population who choose for whatever reason not to go to college," he said. "The older you get without entering the job market, it becomes more likely that you never will."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator