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Job Training for Chronically Unemployed - 2003-02-01

More than 8.5 million Americans who could be working, aren't in part, because of the sagging economy. The most recent statistics put national unemployment at 6 percent. That's not high compared to the rates in some countries, but it's higher than it was in the United States just a few years ago. And for African-Americans, the rate is nearly twice the national average. More than three million people in this country have been without a job for 15 weeks or more and many fall into the category of the "chronically unemployed."

For them, the problem is more than just a recession. Many have battled drug addiction and homelessness and lack the skills necessary to get a job. But a program in Washington DC has become a national model for dealing with chronic unemployment. While the DC Central Kitchen is feeding people who are hungry, it's also training some of those people to take on jobs in the food services industry.

It's mid-afternoon at the DC Central Kitchen and Chef Karen Lewis is anxiously preparing hamburger meat to be used in tonight's dinner. "We use nothing but donated products to prepare a meal for about two thousand people a day," she says.

The DC Central Kitchen is a non-profit food distribution facility that serves the homeless community in America's capital city. People who can't afford to buy a healthy meal can come here and eat one for free. Karen Lewis says she knows what it's like to be homeless. She lived on the street for a number of years in the 1990s, while addicted to heroin and alcohol.

And Ms. Lewis says the experience is one she reminds herself of every day. "If I forget that I was down and out, and that I have experienced hunger, and I don't keep that up front, and keep helping the person behind me that's down and out and experiencing hunger, I won't go anywhere," she says.

Karen Lewis helps people who are "down and out" by doing more than just feeding them. In addition to being a chef, she's also an instructor in the kitchen's Culinary Jobs Training Program. Launched twelve years ago, the program has given more than seven hundred chronically unemployed people, including Karen Lewis, the skills they needed to get jobs in the food services industry.

Similar programs have been started in other large cities such as Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. In DC, 91 percent of the program's graduates have gotten jobs at area hotels, restaurants, and catering facilities. Program coordinator Tammy Taylor says initially, her colleagues started training people, because they needed help in the DC Central Kitchen. But it wasn't long before they realized the food services industry is a perfect place for people looking to get a fresh start on life.

"A lot of the individuals that come to us are kind of "late bloomers," I'd like to say," she says. "They kind of have made a lot of different transitions in their life. And that's one of the beauties of food service. It's a field that you don't have to have a lot of credentials, so to speak, "on paper", to make a lot of money, to advance within the field of hospitality."

In the food services industry, experience matters a whole lot more than formal training. But some amount of training is necessary to get your foot in the door, and that's what the DC Central Kitchen provides. Before they can begin, though, students must prove they've found a stable living situation, either with family members, or with a transitional housing program.

Because the 12-week course is rigorous, Tammy Taylor says students need to be able to concentrate. "If you are "bouncing around," so to speak, or if you aren't in a stable environment, that kind of works against you," she says. "It works against your mindset when you're here, 'cause you may be worrying about 'Where am I going to sleep tonight? Where am I going to get something to eat? Am I going to be warm if it's cold out? Am I going to be cool if it's hot out?'"

In addition to learning how to cook and clean and follow all the safety and sanitation laws governing public kitchens, students learn how to present themselves at job interviews - how to be honest about their past, while at the same marketing their skills.

"So if you have someone that may say to you, 'I see you haven't worked for three years.' And if that person has been incarcerated, let's say, well, you know a part of me being in that program is I have to take motivational classes, I have to take anger management, I have to take life skills," says Ms. Taylor. "Those are things you can highlight, and it's OK to say that I took time to focus on me, so that I can be a better person as I present myself to you today."

In January, the DC Central Kitchen graduated its fiftieth class of culinary students. Some graduates already have jobs lined up at Georgetown University Law School, area hotels, and even the Central Intelligence Agency.

But as he stands in the kitchen, cooking salmon for tonight's meal, Robert Walker says he has other plans. He wants to go to nearby Stratford University, so he can get a chef's degree and make his daughters, ages six and eight, proud. "They're always saying, 'Daddy, are you going to be a chef?" You know, I say, "I'm not a chef.' They say, 'You were a cook before, are you going to be a chef now?' I say 'Hopefully, I will be a chef soon.' And I explain to them about me trying to get into Stratford and everything. But it means a lot to them," he says. "They like to go tell people that their daddy is a chef now. To brag on me, you know? You know how kids are.

Robert Walker says that, more than anything else, is his motivation.