Job Seekers Flock to Annual Fair

An annual D.C. employment fair drew one of its biggest crowds Tuesday as the District faces an unemployment rate that is higher than the national average.

“This turnout breaks my heart,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who hosted the 14th annual fair. “This is a record I wasn’t out to break.”

Last year, about 3,500 people attended Norton’s fair. This year, nearly 4,100 District residents came. About 500 people waited for doors to open at 11 a.m. By noon, a large line of job seekers weaved throughout the Convention Center, from the entrance, down escalators and wrapped around long hallways.

Unemployment in the District is uneven; jobless rates are higher than 20 percent in predominately black and low-income Ward 8, while it’s slight above 3 percent in affluent Ward 3 [PDF].

“The disparity has to be gotten rid of in the District,” Norton said. “The only good jobs available in the government or private sector are upscale jobs. If you don’t have at least a year or two of college, you’re doomed.”

Even those with college degrees are having a tough time. Jay Brooks, 42, holds a bachelor’s degree and has come to Norton’s job fair for 14 years without finding work. He has a part-time job and said, “D.C. has all these jobs and the citizens of the District of Columbia aren’t getting them. It’s people from other states.”

It’s been four months since Henry Welch, 43, was laid off from his nonprofit job. He said, “Child development, social work — those are my specialties. But at this point, the way things are going, I’ll take anything.”

Government agencies seemed to draw the most job seekers — the Internal Revenue Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy were flanked by people eagerly handing out resumes. Government jobs have long represented stable alternatives to the private sector, particularly for African Americans seeking ways around job discrimination. But there are fewer government jobs available, due to the recession and budget cuts.

Most recruiters directed people to apply online, which can be a challenge for those District residents who don’t have Internet access.

“But if you go to their websites, you see that they’re not really hiring,” Niyair Wilkinson, 23, said.

At the Cardinal Bank booth, recruiter Charlene Davis said job interest has been high. But fewer than 20 position were listed on the flier she was handing out.

Despite the number of job seekers outnumbering the available jobs, many attendees remained upbeat. Kevin Smith, who was a supervisor at Harris Teeter for four years until being laid off a week ago, said he’s “not wasting any time.”

“You just have to go out and keep searching. Never give up,” he said. “You have to stay positive and have faith. I’m not going to feel discouraged.”