On Jan. 10, a new job training program started up in the South Los Angeles area that anticipates getting 900 unemployed or underemployed residents ready to work on a $1.2 billion mixed-use high-rise called The Reef.
The project itself has been a flashpoint for controversy over claims it will force up the cost of living — and therefore the risk of displacement — for poorer neighborhoods nearby. But even though local advocates like United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) have been pushing for developers and the city to look at its negative costs, Noreen McClendon thinks the benefits far outweigh the bad.
“We haven’t had anything like this since L.A. Live,” says McClendon, executive director of one of the new job program’s backing organizations Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. She’s referring to an entertainment complex that came with a pioneering community benefits agreement that at least one researcher found has yielded mixed results for the neighborhood.
“It’s an opportunity for us to lift a lot of people out of poverty, with all this concentration of projects in the Ninth District in the next few years,” she says. Unemployment in the South Los Angeles region is around 12 percent, and nearly half of the population lives beneath the federal poverty line.
Los Angeles, like all major U.S. cities, already has a slate of job employment programs. The city’s Economic Development & Workforce Department says its efforts have put 120,000 Angelenos into jobs, and that it works with nearly 1,000 L.A. businesses to make those connections happen.
But according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has the highest concentration of poverty among other major U.S. metropolitan areas, and South Los Angeles residents tell McClendon they feel like they’ve gotten the short end of the stick of the city’s pushback on unemployment numbers.
“The tragedy is that our community has been conditioned to believe that there are no opportunities,” says McClendon. “We have a lot of people who have criminal backgrounds, and they’re told over and over again that once you have a felony, you can’t get employment.”
So when a new jobs program like this starts up and the residents she works with get word, they may initially be reluctant. She sees her job as trying to shift that attitude. “We’re trying to change the mentality from a ‘victim’ mentality to a ‘victors’ mentality.’”
That means doing what other workforce development training programs in the area have yet to incorporate, and providing a five-week boot camp for individuals interested in snagging a job at The Reef that trains them in job etiquette, financial accountability and other personal skills. Once they pass through that, they can sit with LA Trade-Tech, the workforce program building the pipeline between the city and The Reef’s developers, and figure out a job training schedule.
McClendon claims the opportunity to train nearly a thousand low-income workers from the Ninth District, which stretches from Downtown to just past the South Park neighborhood, in construction may never come again in the heavily urbanized area. “Just because there’s not going to be enough land to develop” after the project. In total, developers say it will create 2,700 construction jobs and 592 permanent jobs.
So she’s working with the city, developers and another local organization, the Coalition for Responsible Development, on an outreach campaign that she says will reach 1,600 people in South L.A. to let them know that this new program is up and running. They’re speaking with civic groups with deep connections to neighborhoods and unions, and even visiting events that are a staple of the community like the Taste of Soul food fest.
Right now, they’ve only got seven participants in the initial boot camp phase that started up last week. But McClendon says this current run is like a barometer reading for things to come. “It’s going wonderfully,” she says. “There were people there who actually had part-time work already, but they scheduled to come in on their off days.”
She hopes this new model will make developers and employers look to L.A.’s Ninth District in the future when it comes to filling jobs.
“This is not a philanthropic endeavor here. It’s a business proposition,” she says. “When they get to you as an employer, they’ll get something. And now I’ll actually be going to meetings with contractors and subcontractors so that as they come on board, they’re aware: These people are ready.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.