To help curb high unemployment in Mountain View, long one of Anchorage's poorest neighborhoods, AmeriCorps volunteers will canvass community events or knock on doors, find people who are looking for work and guide them to state-run job training services, state and local officials said Thursday.
Nearly one in four Mountain View residents may be looking for work, a much higher rate than the rest of Anchorage, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. Many Mountain View residents don't have cars, which makes it difficult to travel to the closest state-run job center in Muldoon. In February, the state started offering job training classes and job fairs in the Mountain View library, but information about the programs has largely only spread by word-of-mouth.
On Thursday morning, at a roundtable discussion convened by state Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, officials and others suggested attempts to tackle the neighborhood's employment woes have been too passive.
Instead, the city and state want to "revise how job seekers and employers interact and make sure it's tailored to the people of this place — not generic — tailored," Berkowitz said.
Starting right away, three volunteers with AmeriCorps VISTA — a federal program aimed at fighting poverty — will survey Mountain View to find people looking for work and who have not used the nearby library's job services.
The AmeriCorps volunteers will make sure the job-seeker's contact information is plugged into the center's database, officials said. That person would then receive emails, texts or calls the next time a job fair or training program is coming up at the library.
The idea for the new approach stemmed from the Anchorage Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that has worked for years to bolster the Mountain View economy. But it also echoes the Berkowitz administration's efforts to reduce homelessness — such as creating a list of names of the city's most vulnerable homeless and trying to connect them with services, instead of waiting for those people to seek the services out.
Thursday's hourlong roundtable included more than two dozen representatives of local organizations, businesses and community members. Discussion centered on Mountain View's 22 percent unemployment rate as well as overarching obstacles for job-seekers like criminal records or access to child care.
‘A major crisis’
About 8,000 people live in Mountain View, and the neighborhood has long grappled with higher rates of poverty, unemployment and crime than the rest of Anchorage.
An economic renaissance has swept through the community in recent years, fueled largely by commercial investment and new housing projects. But the number of residents out of work remains high and may be growing.
Between 2012 and 2014, unemployment in Mountain View rose sharply, from 13 percent to 22 percent, according to American Community Survey data cited at Thursday's meeting.
The data isn't exact — there's a large margin of error because of the small population size. But officials said the trend was deeply troubling.
"I see this as a major crisis right now," said Tom Newins, board chair for Anchorage Community Land Trust and former president and chief executive of Credit Union 1, which operates a branch in Mountain View. "It does need all hands on deck."
The executive director of the land trust, Kirk Rose, said his organization has observed higher rates of unemployment for youths aged 16 to 24, and for the Alaska Native and Polynesian communities in Mountain View.
Last year, Rose contacted the state labor department to ask for more job training within Mountain View. The closest state-run job center is in Muldoon. Many Mountain View residents don't have cars, and a bus ride to the Muldoon job center takes an hour and a half, Rose said.
In February, the city and the state announced an itinerant job center would be based in the Mountain View Library. The state has since run job trainings and job fairs in the library. But those efforts haven't seemed to dent unemployment like neighborhood leaders hoped for.
At one of the job fairs, Rowan Kurtz, an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer who has been working with the land trust since last November, surveyed about 60 people. He asked questions about what was keeping them from getting jobs. There was no single reason — people talked about language barriers, a lack of skills and training, child care programs and criminal records.
Kurtz also asked how people heard about the job fair. Overwhelmingly, it was word of mouth.
"That's just how anything happens in this neighborhood," Kurtz said. "Consistent internet access and other means of contact are just less reliable."
As part of the initiative, Brendan Babb, who is in charge of technological innovation for the city, said he's examining new ways to contact people.
While Thursday's roundtable started out with officials focusing on Mountain View, the discussion tended to give way to broader obstacles for applicants, particularly for those with criminal records.
Lucy Hansen, a representative of the Polynesian Association of Alaska, said the newly passed criminal justice reform bill, Senate Bill 91, should allow more people who are in jail to be released early and start looking for work.
But, she said, "I've had people that come back and say, we cannot get a job, because they cannot hire us."
Greg Wakefield, owner of a Ship Creek-based company, AAA Moving, noted that private companies are focused mainly on making money, not new hires.
"We want to hire people, but we have to have qualified workers," Wakefield said. He said state and federal laws hamper his ability to hire more than half the people who walk into his business looking for a job.
Donteh Devoe, a peer recovery coordinator at Cook Inlet Tribal Council, said his organization has started offering twice-monthly Monday night meetings with job training for people who are leaving the prison system or have struggled with substance abuse. The meetings center on housing and applying for jobs, he said.
Moira Sullivan, the director of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.'s Live, Work, Play initiative, also noted the problem of drug tests. She said she expects the number of people who apply for positions but fail drug tests to increase with the legalization of marijuana.
Sullivan said education about the drug and the length of time it remains in the body should start with high school students.
"There are many people who simply don't know that smoking marijuana, while legal, is something that will stop you from getting a job," Sullivan said.
Sharon Pulou-Isaako, the lead career development manager at Nine Star Education & Employment Services, said she's also seen problems with employers refusing to accept federal insurance bonding for job applicants. For decades, the insurance bonding has been a backstop for employers who are willing to hire job candidates considered more at-risk.
"I encourage you, employers, to please look at that, so that way we can help these individuals be out there and get employed," Pulou-Isaako told the room. "This unemployment is pretty high."
The roundtable ended with an agreement: Meet again in six months, to see what's changed.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Tom Newins is the current president and chief executive of Credit Union 1. Newins is a former president and chief executive.