Categorized | Brooklyn, Money & Economy

The struggle with unemployment in Brooklyn

Many gathered at the One Nation Rally in D.C. to bring attention to the nation's high unemployment rate

It’s after six o’clock on a Friday night when 30-year-old Tracy Gibbs-Brown flips through her notebooks where she’s compiled the names of 140 jobless people.

Come Monday, she has to do check-ins – calling and asking everyone how their job search is going. She also has to assist the more than 25 new and returning individuals who come into her office every day looking for work. It’s nearly seven by the time she heats up the lunch she didn’t get to eat at noon. After a quick break, she gets back to work.

“Some of our clients are underemployed, under educated, and under experienced. It’s very difficult to find them jobs,” said Gibbs-Brown, a job developer and career counselor for the Brooklyn United For Innovative Local Development (BUILD) office in Downtown Brooklyn. She added that in this tough economic climate it’s also hard to place overqualified work applicants.

Brooklyn has the second highest unemployment rate in New York State with 10.8 percent, second only to the Bronx at 13 percent. A large part of BUILD’s mission, since it was created in 2004, is to generate employment and help communities achieve financial self-sufficiency. As of September 2010, a new way BUILD is helping people find work is through their pre-apprenticeship program, which teaches participants hands on construction skills and starts them in the process of becoming labor union members.

But many in the Brooklyn community are outraged that the program is funded by Forest City Ratner, the development company behind the controversial $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards basketball arena and apartment complex project. Atlantic Yards, which will be built in Prospect Heights, has many people in the poorer areas of the borough are furious over what they see as an uneven distribution of development. Those who live by the site are upset over the 10 years of construction that lie ahead.

“But it’s going to create a lot of jobs,” said BUILD pre-apprenticeship professor Gausia Jones, 31. “I’m looking forward to 10 years from now when they say BUILD was at the forefront of it. We got on the project and we put some people to work, which is the most important thing. After that they can go and help their families and help themselves and be productive citizens.”

Construction has not yet begun, but exactly how many jobs the project will generate is unclear. Before BUILD opened its Downtown Brooklyn office in 2007, it already had approximately 7,000 people registered in its database, most having heard through word of mouth that Forest City Ratner was hiring pre-apprenticeship participants. Another 1,000 were processed shortly after the office opened. But of the 8,000 people who ultimately signed up, there was only funding for 30 men and women to take the 15-week program.

“I almost left that line. There were 300 or 400 people in front of me,” said Lloyd Mathews, 43, a current member of the pre-apprenticeship program. “I was discouraged, but I stayed because I had no choice. My job was over, my life was over and I felt like this was my last chance to help my family.”

Mathews has two boys, one six and the other four-months-old. He grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and studied psychology at Hampton University in Virginia. In 1995 Matthews lost his job with the cosmetic display company Pop Displays, and was incarcerated for three years for assaulting a man who he said raped his sister. Since then he has struggled to find work and now he survives on food stamps.

“It messes up your record and it stops you from getting certain jobs. It affects every fiber of your being. I wish I could have done something different. I wish I did do something different. If I had the mindset I have now I wouldn’t have reacted that way,” he said of his experience as a convicted felon.

Mathews said he is very thankful that he’s in the pre-apprenticeship program and says that reading Stephen Covey’s books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, for class has been life changing. He feels deeply sorry, however, for the thousands who didn’t get the opportunity to be part of the program, especially his friend Sid Thorton who quit.

“He started the program with me, but he’s having a baby,” said Mathews. “He said ‘I understand this program is going to take a couple of weeks, but I need a check now.’”

Thorton left the pre-apprenticeship program and got a job at the US Open, but that job ended in September and he was back on the unemployment line.

Finding relief for low-income Americans with few resources was a strong focus of the One Nation Working Together rally held in Washington D.C. on October 2, 2010. Over 400 groups, including BUILD, sent representatives. A total of 175, 000 people attended the event aimed at equality for all, fair access to good quality public education and getting Americans back to work.

“The idea around the march was to bring many diverse groups and people together who are often working on different issues,” said Amaya Tune, representative in Washington D.C. of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). “And to show that there is unity around policies that improve the social welfare in our country.”

Yet, they are facing daunting numbers. Unemployment remains high, reaching 8.3 percent in August, a slight up tick from 8.2 percent in June. Furthermore, from August 2009 to August 2010. The State of New York Department of Labor reported a loss of 3, 700 construction jobs.

But despite the uncertainty, Gibbs-Brown remains optimistic.

“I see jobless people come into BUILD every day and I’m inspired,” she said, “and they leave inspired because they allowed us an opportunity to help them. Pretty soon we’ll have a whole new set of people working.”

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