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Working to narrow the gap

Stanley Bolland has dabbled in drafting, grass cutting, painting and janitorial work since graduating from Stonewall Jackson High School 36 years ago.

Although playing guitar has been his passion, his band’s gigs don’t always pay the bills. He doesn’t have much income other than from playing music and working odd jobs.

Bolland saw a way to improve his situation when his pastor mentioned that the HOPE Workforce Development Center was offering automated computer-assisted drafting training. He was interested in computers and saw the training as a way to modernize his drafting skills.

“I figured it was a good opportunity to get a better job,” said the 53-year-old.

In 2001, the 9.6 percent unemployment rate for blacks in West Virginia was more than double that of whites. In 2002, a majority of West Virginia blacks worked in service, sales, clerical or administrative support jobs. Nationwide, blacks earned $126 less a week working full time than whites did in 2002.

Some leaders in the black community are outraged at the segregation in employment that is occurring a half-century after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that said separate is not equal.

“The civil rights movement and affirmative action never got to West Virginia. We just assumed it did because everyone else was talking about it,” said the Rev. Matthew J. Watts, executive director of the HOPE Community Development Corporation on Charleston’s West Side, which runs the Workforce Development Center.

Watts remembers attending a segregated elementary school in 1963 that remained segregated until 1966.

“West Virginia didn’t have the bitter, blatant, belligerent racism like Mississippi or Alabama. It was more subtle,” he said. “No one challenged it because it was woven into society.”

Although segregation was illegal, society still placed blacks and whites in separate categories, Watts said. So no one outside the black community adequately addressed issues affecting African-Americans, such as the lack of good-paying jobs.

Segregation begins early

Gov. Bob Wise created the 13-member Minority Students Strategies Council in August to address the growing achievement gap between minority and nonminority students in the state’s school system.

The achievement gap starts early with reading because black children and lower-income white children are less prepared when they start school than their middle-class counterparts, said council member Troy Body.

In first through third grades, children are learning to read, he said. By fourth grade, they are reading to learn. If students can’t read, they fall behind, and school becomes a trial.

Often, they will act out for attention, are tagged as troublemakers and are seen as lost causes by teachers. Sometimes, students simply stop coming to school because they don’t see its value.

Black students have the lowest average achievement of any minority group on standardized tests, according to No Child Left Behind Act data.

This gap leads to black students taking fewer advanced-placement classes and college-preparatory classes than whites.

Eight percent of the state’s black students took advanced-placement or dual-credit college courses in high school, compared with 23 percent of white students, according to the council’s report. That puts blacks at a disadvantage for college entrance exams, merit-based scholarship opportunities, and college enrollment and completion.

This achievement gap only widens as students get older. In Kanawha County, which has the largest black student population in the state, 66.67 percent of blacks graduated in 2003, compared with 81.03 percent of whites.

In 2001, 271 out of 7,231 students who earned a bachelor’s degree at a West Virginia college or university were black. Only 69 out of 2,825 students who earned a graduate or professional degree in West Virginia were black.

Programs that offer job training

About 400 students, ages 16 to 24, participate in the Charleston Job Corps. The federally funded program offers GED preparation, vocational training, and work-force readiness and college-preparation classes. If the students so choose, Job Corps also pays for them to attend West Virginia State College during their time in the program.

About 25 percent of the program’s students are from West Virginia, said Ronni Spudich, the program’s executive director. About 65 percent of the program’s students are black.

The Charleston center offers training in 11 trades ranging from culinary arts and computer repair to medical assistant and carpentry. Students earn about $8 an hour at their first job after graduating from the program. Many go on to college or advanced vocational training.

Spudich says the program gives students more than a job. “We’re giving them academic, vocational and employability skills.”

The HOPE Center also offers employability skills training. It offers youth and adult clients basic math, reading and writing skills, plus AutoCAD and Microsoft Office training. The center also offers job referrals, GED courses, interview preparation, career planning, employment searches and résumé writing.

Of the center’s 437 clients who have signed up for services since September, 72 are employed, said Project Director A. Bonita Perry-Dean. Most jobs are in the service industry, but can lead to better opportunities.

The center is focusing on helping the people in the community who might not have high school diplomas or jobs, Watts said. “Our goal is to move people from welfare to faring well.”

Moving from welfare to an $8-an-hour job might be a good start, but people shouldn’t be satisfied with staying at that level, said Derrick Gibson, director of the East End Family Resource Center. The center provides community services to East End residents, including GED preparation and after-school tutoring programs and referrals to other assistance programs for parents and families.

“When we’re proud of telemarketing jobs, we’re not on the right track,” he said.

He praised beBetter Networks, an Atlanta-based company that will bring 100 jobs to downtown Charleston by 2007. Employees will have graduate-level degrees and earn, on average, $45,000 a year. John W. McClaugherty, the company’s chief executive officer, has said it’s possible that 200 to 300 could work at the Capitol Street center in the coming years.

Fixing segregation in employment

Breaking the cycle of poverty and low-paying jobs for blacks involves redistributing knowledge and helping people help themselves, Watts said.

In 2003, the HOPE center received a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, $140,000 of which the center will give away to five smaller groups. The Washington Manor housing project will receive $27,000 to train residents to apply for jobs online, understand the community college system and sign up for work readiness training. Some residents will work for the center and train other residents.

“We’re putting the skill set that this economy needs in the hands and minds of the people in the community,” Watts said. The people will be the emerging work force.

Focusing on and training low-income blacks and whites to work in local businesses makes sense because they are the least likely to leave West Virginia, he said.

“[It would] help our state by having more taxable wages, more people paying into the Social Security system, and [improving] the quality of life,” he said. “When employment goes up, crime goes down,” he said.

Gibson wants the business community to create better-paying jobs to keep black college graduates in the state. “The ones who have their acts together, as soon as they get their degree, leave West Virginia.”

People should continue seeking out ways to move up the job ladder, Gibson said.

Bolland sees the AutoCAD training as a chance to sharpen his drafting skills, make more money and further his education.

“That’s the biggest regret of my life,” said Bolland, about dropping out of State College while studying pre-engineering.

After this training, he might give college another try.

“My goal is to get a job, and later on, maybe continue going to school and teach AutoCAD.”

To contact staff writer Jennifer Ginsberg, use e-mail or call 348-5195.


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