Government Employment for Those Who Need a Leg Up

An innovative apprenticeship program is working to bring some of Los Angeles' neediest residents into the city's workforce.

Man trimming a palm tree.
Most mayors (and having been one myself, I say this respectfully) become proficient at jawboning local companies to act as enlightened employers -- ones that provide opportunities both for skilled local residents and for those who need a little help to become productive members of the workforce. Less frequently, however, city hall positions itself as a forward-acting employer, one that can serve as a model for the private sector.

Los Angeles is beginning to do just that in an innovative manner as it sets out to employ individuals whose circumstances result in them being left behind in the private-sector job market. Government work can provide steady income, stable hours and enviable benefits. The catch, however, is that most public-sector jobs are off limits to those with little or no applicable work experience.

Los Angeles is creating opportunities for jobless residents with its Targeted Local Hire Program, a one-year apprenticeship that can serve as a gateway to long-term employment with the city. The program opens up "a steady pipeline of workers who may not typically get an interview to the ranks of Angelenos who pave our roads, trim our trees and deliver vital services to our neighborhoods," said Mayor Eric Garcetti. "We know that the best path out of poverty is an open door to a steady job, and our efforts ensure Angelenos can walk through that door, regardless of their circumstances, background or ZIP code."

Apprentices are selected from an applicant pool. The first six months of the program are spent on the job acquiring skills while supervisors evaluate a candidate's competency. In the second half-year, apprentices who have received positive evaluations join a probationary civil-service classification. After graduating from the training program, successful participants enter the full civil service in one of seven job classifications, ranging from administrative clerk to gardener/caretaker to animal control officer.

The program primarily targets the city's neediest populations. While 20 percent of the candidates it provides to government employers come from the city's general population, 80 percent come from a pool of applicants who, for example, live in distressed ZIP codes, are reentering the labor market after an extended hiatus, are homeless or have returned from incarceration.

Since the Targeted Local Hire Program began in February 2017, more than 500 individuals have been placed in apprenticeships, and about half of that number have graduated into full civil-service jobs. Currently, more than 5,000 applicants remain in the program's apprentice pool. That's a large population of candidates to place, but city-government employers are already starting to see the benefits of the program and more are signing on.

"Part of what makes the program appealing to employers is that they are able to help mold individuals into what they need through training," said Lidia Manzanares, director of operations for the Mayor's Office of Budget and Innovation. Some departments go out of their way to provide new hires coming through the program with additional training, such as helping them take community-college classes to get commercial driver's licenses. Los Angeles' General Services Department created a program to train custodians to handle hazardous materials.

The Targeted Local Hiring Program "provides more than just a job," said Vincent Cordero, a close collaborator in its development who manages the city Personnel Department's workforce development section. "Successful candidates find a level of stability that allows them to go to their kids' games and help with homework." That kind of stability is crucial in an economic environment where many workers must straddle numerous part-time and gig-economy jobs.

The challenge with getting a local-hiring program like Los Angeles' off the ground often centers on building consensus with the major decision-makers associated with the city's labor force. Other cities that have attempted similar programs have run into issues with employee unions or human-resources representatives who see such initiatives as impinging on their work or interests. For this reason, Los Angeles signed a letter of agreement with the Coalition of City Unions to form a working group to jointly develop the program.

The Targeted Local Hire Program demonstrates a meaningful alternative to the traditional pencil-and-paper civil-service exam, which deters less-literate individuals as well as those who do not have the opportunity to prepare for such a test. In an era when the job market may seem flooded with ads require years of experience for entry-level positions, L.A.'s program is a breath of fresh air -- putting emphasis not on résumés but on people and giving them the opportunity to prove themselves on the job.

The program also sends a powerful message: Cities can recognize aptitude where others overlook it. Moreover, an investment in a city's public workforce can have a wonderful multiplier effect that extends to the families of employees and their communities.

This appears in the Better, Faster, Cheaper newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program