Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Hardcore Unemployed

by Tom Emch

Hardcore unemployable Leroy Smith, 20, born in the Mission and still living there near 18th Street and South Van Ness, would be startled to learn that there are hundreds of bureaucrats making a living out of trying to get him a job.

He would be astounded to know that there are some forty-four agencies with annual public monies exceeding $5 million eager to train him to "fill the manpower needs of this community," as the Mayor puts it.

Leroy would be further shocked to discover that of all these people in all these agencies, no one knows where he lives or that he's out of work. And that he officially doesn't exist.

Leroy Smith has lived in San Francisco twenty years; he's worked at a regular job only three weeks of that time, and he's not even an "unemployment statistic."

When the Manpower Planning Council reports that there is a ten percent unemployment rate in the Mission, they're not including Leroy, who is probably out somewhere shooting pool for quarters.

"There are a lot of people not counted as being in the labor force," says Steve Sussman, who runs the U.S. Manpower Administration's Concentrated Employment Program for The City with $3.3 million a year. "Like the guy who hasn't worked in five years and hasn't applied to DHRD (Department of Human Resources Development). There's no record of him."

There's no record of Leroy, who worked three weeks as a stockman at the Emporium, has done some carpentry and painting odd jobs when he really needs some bread, and picks up most of the change he needs at the pool table.

A job?

There's no way anyone is going to get Leroy a job. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade; he functionally illiterate; has no driver's license; has an arrest record (assault); he's not bondable and he doesn't like to work with his hands. Some people suspect he doesn't like to work, period.

Says Leroy of the only skill he has - carpentry: "I don't know why I got into it. I don't like to work with wood.

"I went to Mission night school to get trained for a job and they put me in a poultry class. I told them I didn't want poultry and they said I had to take poultry, so I quit."

They should have known better than to offer an accomplished pool player like Leroy a career in poultry.

Among Leroy's colleagues who are not counted as being in the labor force are estimated 5,000 San Franciscans: bookies, pimps, prostitutes, pushers, burglars, fences, winos, street people, petty thieves and other assorted types who live the "fast" life as opposed to the "straight" life.

A man who knows both lives, Kenny Marcelous, assistant director of the Mission Rebels, says: "Some of these cats bounce from one odd job to another, boosting (shoplifting) on the side, but it doesn't last. You can't do both. You gotta be straight or you gotta be on the street."

"You gotta take your pick because you can't mix the two", says Marcelous. Of the people on the street, he says; "Either a cat can (get a job) and won't, or he just can't."

Applying a little street philosophy to the case of Leroy, the Mission Rebels administrator says:

"Maybe he's afraid of succeeding; afraid that if he got a good job and started to like the work he'd fail or get fired. If you don't want to succeed, don't take a job."

In speculating on Leroy's attitudes toward gainful employment, Marcelous is describing what many professional manpower analysts call the "failure syndrome."

Eunice Elton, the Mayor's Director of Manpower Planning and Research (at $22,140 a year), says a person with a failure syndrome is "one who has had a succession of secondary jobs -seasonal or part-time - and has found little reward from working. He decides: " 'They won't keep me on anyway,' and then he quits and drops out of the labor market. he decides he's not needed."

Refining her definition of unemployables, she says persons with disabilities such as epilepsy are traditionally unemployable, but there are other groups employers don't want to take a chance on: reformed alcoholics, persons who have been on drugs and persons with multiple felony records. "These are the hardest of the hardcore."

Her fellow manpower expert, Steve Susssman, agrees, with some minor variations.

Here is his profile of an unemployable: "A person who is not a citizen, is past age 60 and has a Spanish surname. He's functionally illiterate in Spanish and speaks little English. He has two felony arrests: he's not bondable and can't get a driver's license, and he's presently on a methadone maintenance program. Oh yes, he doesn't like to work with his hands."

Few such people exist, of course, and the description is fictional, but Sussman says he has had people with similar records come to him looking for work.

"What can I do for this person?" he asks rhetorically. "Nothing."

He says the hardcore, the person who really needs a service, can't get any service. "There are other people laid on top of him ... the returning Vietnam veteran who has a priority; the resident alien who may have worked as an attorney in South America and who is well equipped to work here."

Sussman explains that the Department of Labor money received by his program is via a performance contract based on the number of people served and the number of persons placed in jobs. So there's pressure to move people through quickly and cheaply.

"You take on a person you can find a job for and pass over the person who really needs help. So when you're talking about the hardcore unemployable, you're talking about the person who doesn't get touched by any of the services."

He gives this example, "The people from the methadone program call up and say 'We have a person we have been working with who is ready to go to work. What can you do?"

"Well, we can't do anything, because we can't preselect a person to train. We have to get our people from DHRD (people who have signed up with State unemployment), people who are on file there.

"So we are actually excluding certain hardcore unemployables," he says.

Many other publicly funded manpower agencies do the same thing because they are sub-contractors of Sussman's CEP, and subject to the same performance standards. Some of these include Youth for Service, Health Professions Council, Arriba Juntos, Chinatown-Northbeach English Language Center, Fil-Am Language Center, Mission Language and Vocational School and the San Francisco Civil Service Commission.

These publicly funded action groups, plus perhaps two dozens others that are either publicly or privately funded, all peddle their own trainees to employers.

Ray Holland who heads the data reporting and information systems unit of CEP, says that in the recent past sub-contractors would meet each other coming and going from the executive offices of large corporations.

He says that action groups from the Misison, Chinatown and Filipinos have been banging on the doors of company executives demanding jobs for their particular people.

"After about a year of this, the employers caught on. They discovered there's a lot of competition between manpower contractors for the available jobs. Now, all the employer has to do is sit back and wait. He'll say: 'Sure, I'll consider your person.' Then he'll hire the best qualified applicant who will work the cheapest."

Sussman adds that all of the manpower contractors are under the same gun: Too little time, too little money to train the person who really needs help - like the hardcore unemployable. So the contractors end up placing the person who already has some skills.

"They work with people who are easily employable to make their records look good," says Sussman.

There is another deterrent to training someone who needs help. Take the case of a bank that has a job for a clerk, says Sussman. 'The bank says: "What do I want to train someone for? I've got eight qualified applicants."

This is the catch. "We're locked into this system," he says. And it works against the person without any marketable skills.

Without marketable skills describes Leroy Smith, our Mission District pool hustler. (This isn't his real name, but many like him exist, manpower experts agree.)

Leroy's problem is one of attitude. He doesn't like to work and he doesn't like to be told what to do, so you ask him about his experience and attitude.

What did you get paid as a stockman at the Emporium?

Leroy: "I don't know what I got paid... they docked us by minutes... two minutes, three minutes: the check was always different."

Would you like to get a driver's license and be a truck driver?

Leroy: "Not interested in driving."

Would you like to be a carpenter? You have some experience.

Leroy: "No. Don't like that job."

Would you like to go back to school and learn a trade?

Leroy: "The Mission Rebels got me back in school and the second day I had a hassle with the teacher... I was standing by the window and she told me to sit down. So I quit."

What would you like to do?

Leroy: "I'd like counseling. Counseling kids here for the Rebels. I do some counseling, but I don't get paid for it."

It's not certain what Leroy would counsel Mission kids about, except maybe how to hustle pool - he would probably be good at that. But it is certain he couldn't counsel them how to get a job and keep it.

Leroy, when we left him, was at the pool table in Rebel headquarters on South Van Ness smoothly dropping balls in rotation. so you couldn't accurately describe him as being totally without skills.

As Eunice Elton says: "I insist that someone who can dismantle two 10-speed bicycles in five minutes and put them back together so they can't be identified has a skill." She adds that it isn't a socially acceptable skill, however.

There are apparently two things all hardcore unemployables have in common: They lack marketable skills and they have an attitude toward the "work ethic" that would shock Benjamin Franklin. They don't see work as a shiny ideal that will surely get them ahead in the world.

Sussman says: "You can't talk about these people in terms of statistics because you're talking about attitudinal problems. The classic case is the black male youth who drops out of high school and learns the reality. He can only make about $1.50 an hour. He tries a series of marginal jobs for awhile and finally says: 'screw it'. He goes on welfare and that's where he stays. He's almost a statistical non-entity."

Ray Holland adds: "For this person the work ethic is a lie. His income is about $10 a week less on welfare than it is if he's working." He says that the controversial guaranteed wage might be the answer.

Others in the manpower field agree. Eunice Elton says: "Maybe it would be cheaper to pay for a guaranteed annual wage than to pay for the welfare system. The country is not ready for the concept. It would be unpopular as a drain on individual income, and it is viewed as redistribution of wealth.

The problem must be studied, she insists, "because the work ethic is in trouble."

Shiny ideals and volumes of statistical reports - these things mean little to the estimated 21,000 persons who live in San Francisco and are out of work.

"More than six percent of The City's labor force is unemployed," according to Eunice Elton. And her office estimates the rate in certain census tracts South of Market is fifteen percent, thirteen percent in Hunter's Point, ten percent in certain tracts of the Mission and Western Addition.

And you can add to these figures one Leroy Smith, hard core unemployable,who is not even a statistic.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle 1973