A local jobs program’s lessons for how to put people to work

The Birmingham Service Corps has put 325 residents to work in positions that fill community needs of the moment: staffing a call center, providing COVID-19 screening for public housing residents, transporting symptomatic patients to and from testing.

As the city of Birmingham, Ala., saw its economy take a staggering hit from the coronavirus in March, city leaders looked to an iconic government initiative from the past for inspiration: President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and Tennessee Valley Authority.

These federal responses to the Great Depression have long been hailed for their ability to give sidelined workers income in ways that build community pride and self-worth and left a legacy of infrastructure improvements and regional art and architecture. Their example led Birmingham to find ways to hire unemployed and underemployed workers — with a focus particularly on low-income and hourly workers — for projects that respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The jobs program is called Birmingham Service Corps. It’s put more than 325 people to work in positions that fill community needs of the moment: staffing a call center, providing COVID-19 screening for public housing residents, transporting symptomatic patients to and from testing. Though small compared to Roosevelt’s initiatives, Birmingham’s effort has emerged as a national model for how cities can mobilize local resources to create jobs in the COVID economy.

“The vision was to put people back to work, to give people a sense of pride, and actually fill the needs in the community created by the pandemic,” Mayor Randall Woodfin said in a recent interview, adding that the program was “99 percent” inspired by FDR.

In April, the Birmingham City Council approved $1 million to fund the Service Corps, which is part of a public-private partnership known as #BhamStrong. That partnership has also helped small businesses through an emergency loan fund and technical assistance to navigate federal aid programs.

Suzanna Fritzberg, the executive director of #BhamStrong, said positions offered through the program pay from $16 to $22 an hour. The only eligibility requirements are that an individual be at least 18 years old and a resident of the city. Sixty-four percent of Service Corps members are people of color.

[Read: Baltimore scales up contact tracing putting jobless residents to work]

Fritzberg said the program increasingly partners with local nonprofits — about 20 at the moment — who all have experienced increased demand as a result of the pandemic. While some of the initial placements for the Service Corps were dictated by immediate city needs as a result of the crisis, Fritzberg said the program is now trying to position applicants with organizations that can provide training and a potential path to more long-term employment.

#BhamStrong tries to place two or three people per nonprofit. The employer agrees to a collaborative process in working out the placement and deciding which core skills to focus on in terms of training hires. “That’s much more the trajectory now,” Fritzberg said. “We’re moving away from filling any job that helps us put out a fire to looking for good jobs with a longer runway.”

Fritzberg said the city has received a number of inquiries from city leaders across the country about potentially replicating the program. After Birmingham’s initial experiences, she offered a few tips for cities who might want to pilot a similar kind of community-focused job generator.

  • The public-private model has enabled #BhamStrong to have a close relationship with City Hall as well as strong support from local philanthropies.
  • Building relationships with existing city organizations helped the program better assess community needs and put applicants into meaningful jobs. “We went from being an employer to being a connector,” Fritzberg said.
  • Make sure that the applicant pool reflects the diversity of the city; Birmingham is 74 percent Black, the fourth highest among U.S cities over 100,000 people. Fritzberg said this goal pushed the team to look beyond traditional media and social media outreach to get the word out in neighborhoods through local organizations and passing out information at food distribution sites.
  • Give team members ownership in the organization and its overall goals by including them in strategic decisions and moving them into leadership positions.

(Photos: #BhamStrong)

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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