Austin Spell, 20, wants to be a pipe-fitter or EMT. That is why he was recently sitting in a classroom at the Moses Jackson Advancement Center, where he and six others were registering for a GED program put on by Savannah Tech.
Spell said he was pulled out of school by his stepfather in eighth grade and he does not have the educational background he needs to meet his career goals.
“I’m planning on getting my bachelor’s degree and see what I can make out of myself,” he said.
The GED program is one of many programs at the city-supported advancement center that are meant to help Savannah residents find employment. Still, Savannah’s high poverty level persists.
The percentage of Savannah’s population living below the poverty level was almost 27 percent in 2015 — up from almost 22 percent in 2000, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
About a million dollars in federal funds supported the advancement center and social services offered by America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, Union Mission and Lutheran Services of Coastal Georgia.
Taffanye Young, Community and Economic Development Bureau chief, recently attributed the increased poverty rate to the recession when she presented the report to the Savannah City Council during an economic mobility workshop.
“You had a lot of jobs that were lost,” Young said. “A lot of people with higher incomes and higher skills ended up taking some of the lower skilled jobs.”
And job training is no “magic bullet” when residents have child care, transportation, substance abuse and criminal background issues to deal with, Young said.
Only 17 percent of the 507 individuals who received job training through the city-funded programs since 2011 ended up becoming employed, according to the staff report.
Those type of results are not satisfactory, City Manager Rob Hernandez told the council.
“We may have to do something entirely different with some of these populations that have drastic barriers,” Hernandez said.
Other programs have fared better, however.
The US Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act only employed 34 percent of the 1,256 Chatham County participants since 2011, although many of those participants are still engaged in the program, according to the staff report. And since 2014, 316 adults received job training through the Step Up’s Chatham Apprentice Program, with 59 percent becoming employed. Another 159 jobs have been created or retained since 2011 for low- to moderate-income residents through a city-supported loan program administered by the Small Business Assistance Corporation.
Goodwill of Southeast Georgia is helping residents find work with the launch this year of a hospitality training program at the advancement center.
Rashena Platt, one of the six-week program’s participants, said that after three months of being unemployed, the program helped “get her foot in the door” and find a job as a housekeeper.
Whether hospitality-based jobs will help Savannah reduce the poverty rate has been a matter of local debate.
The growing number of hotels has drawn some criticism from residents, who are concerned about the city becoming too dependent on what they contend are low paying jobs.
But Borish Jenkins, a Goodwill Career Center assistant who conducts the training course, said the hospitality industry does offer opportunities for advancement and better pay. Hotel employees, for instance, can start as a housekeeper, go to front desk, then become a supervisor and from supervisor become a general manager, said Jenkins, a former hotel employee himself.
“I know it can be lucrative,” he said.
And some hotels, such as developer Richard Kessler’s Plant Riverside $270 million hotel project being built along West River Street, are going to be offering higher pay, Jenkins said.
The Plant Riverside project is located in a state opportunity zone, which makes Kessler eligible for job tax credits for providing employment in an impoverished area. The hotel is supposed to create 700 full-time permanent positions with benefits, including health insurance, and Kessler is required to pay at least $10.25 as part of the tax credit agreement, but he has said beginning wages could reach as high as $15 an hour .
As for Platt’s plans, she said she plans on working her way up to be a manager.
“You always have an opportunity for advancement,” she said. “So just take your time and move up.”
‘Outside the box’
City staffers said that they plan on improving coordination among service providers, identify new revenue sources, aggressively promote programs, and think “outside the box” to reduce the poverty rate and provide more employment opportunities. Young said that the city may want to try to re-implement a partnership with a local church that had retirees provide training, such as brick laying, for residents seeking job skills.
Staff is also working on a proposal that will hopefully address some of the hard to hire issues with respect to city contracts and city employment, Hernandez said.