“Made in Durham” plan draws skepticism

May. 24, 2014 @ 06:59 PM

A Durham-based think tank says community leaders need to find a more systematic way to link young people to educational and employment opportunities, as the programs they have now are too scattershot and small-scale to offer much help.

The group, MDC Inc., thinks it can help orchestrate an effort to establish more such connections in the health care and life-sciences industry to start, if local governments step forward with money to pay for data-gathering and liaison work.

It’s seeking $618,000 from the city, county and school system over two years, to match $1.3 million from corporate and foundation sources.

But the request drew a largely skeptical response from the elected officials who attended a rare joint meeting of the City Council, County Commissioners and the Durham Public Schools board of education.

The last thing Durham’s residents want on the workforce-development front is “another program that doesn’t work and disappoints people,” County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said.

MDC’s president, David Dodson, and one of the group’s senior fellows, Julia Mooney, used broad strokes in sketching the issue for officials.

There are about 44,000 youth in Durham and of those, about 60 percent are on track in school or training programs that promise eventually to lead to jobs.

Another 25 percent are behind their age group. And up to 15 percent – rough estimates suggest 4,500 to 6,000 kids – are completely off track, “disconnected” from any chance to gain a mainstream, decently paying job.

The city’s director of economic and workforce development, Kevin Dick, conceded the federally funded training programs he watches over can handle a few hundred people at a time.

So “we do not have an off-the-shelf program to address that demographic at the scale at which the problem manifests itself,” Dodson said.

That’s left the community at risk, according to an MDC briefing paper, “of writing off a good share of our youth and future workforce on the premise that [employers] can simply recruit from other counties and states.”

The MDC initiative -- dubbed “Made in Durham” -- is focusing on the health care industry because it’s gotten initial support from organizations like the Duke University Health System.

In health care locally, there are “are abundant living-wage jobs, the education system is well set up to produce people with credentials, and our employers understand the importance of building local talent supply lines for their sectors to complement the people who move to Durham with credentials,” Dodson said.

But employers MDC has spoken to have said “very forcefully [that] we are far from a place that can have disconnected youth labor-market ready,” he added. “They can’t and won’t say yes to young people who are radically unprepared.”

Elected officials readily agreed with that diagnosis but made it clear they thought MDC’s prescription for dealing with it was vague, at best.

The group needs to provide a lot more specificity about its intentions because “it’s very clear people do not want their expectations raised again,” City Councilwoman Diane Catotti said, echoing Jacobs.

And the most skeptical reactions came from the school board, which oversees K-12 schools roiled by a succession of state budgetary and policy decisions since the recession of 2008-09.

To board member Nancy Cox, the MDC request sounded like an attempt to use outside consultants to backfill work the school system, but for downsizing, should be able to do for itself.

“Sure, we need these kinds of positions, and damn it, we’ve needed them in DPS – we’ve had them and we’ve cut them,” she said. “We are not being told anything we don’t know and I’m feeling offended, with the reality DPS deals with every day, that we need this many people for something outside of what we’re already doing, outside of the institutions already doing this work that have seen cuts and seen work spread among fewer and fewer people.”

She added she was “so offended I’m almost ready to leave.”

Elected officials left the door open to funding the request, but Mayor Bill Bell said he’d like MDC to secure its private-sector contributions first before asking local governments to release any money.