whitespace

The 550,000-square-foot lab, office and retail campus being build for Novartis near Central Square and Area IV should employ Cambridge residents, city councillor Dennis Benzan said Monday. (Image: Toshiko Mori Architect)

The 550,000-square-foot lab, office and retail campus being build for Novartis near Central Square and Area IV should employ Cambridge residents, city councillor Dennis Benzan said Monday. (Image: Toshiko Mori Architect)

City officials are embracing the idea of holding residents-only job fairs to connect Cambridge’s employers and its middle class.

Councillor Dennis Benzan, who proposed the idea Monday in a policy order, said he hoped to get the city’s unemployment rate down “from 4.3 percent to almost zero.”

“We live in a city undergoing tremendous economic growth, but there’s a huge disconnect between this growth and much of the residents of this city,” Benzan said. The idea is to help “particularly those residents who have been here a very long time and are struggling to stay, [who] graduate from high school and they’re told if they go to college and do well and come back to our city, they may be able to find employment. It’s become increasingly hard to do that.”

“If there’s any city that could really employ all its residents, it’s the city of Cambridge,” he said.

Zoning for jobs

Benzan

Benzan

Benzan gave the example of the 550,000-square-foot lab, office and retail campus being build for Novartis near Central Square and the Area IV residential neighborhood. The $600 million project is expected to be finished next year with a need for workers not just in its high-tech health care labs, but service and support jobs such as in cafeterias or parking lots or as security guards.

“I’m not sure that when Novartis came before us seeking zoning rights that we requested they set aside a certain number of jobs, but I want to make sure that as they think about hiring for these positions that they are strongly looking within our borders at the Cambridge community, especially at the neighborhood that abuts Novartis,” Benzan said.

Nationwide, unemployment was about 6.7 percent in February, outshone considerably by Cambridge’s 4.3 percent. But councillor Leland Cheung said that if you pull apart the numbers, must of the unemployment would fall on the poorer side if the city’s demographic mix – which is already tilting toward extremes as the middle class gets squeezed out. Cheung urged the city manager’s staff to think about how the job fairs could be tailored to help the demographic most in need.

Task welcomed

It was a challenge seemingly relished by City Manager Richard C. Rossi and Assistant City Manager for Human Services Ellen Semonoff.

“It’s incredibly exciting to think about the possibilities,” Semonoff said, agreeing that looking at different kinds of job options – especially for those lower on the pay scale – and a job fair itself “made a lot of sense.”

Rossi saw a broad spectrum of possible employers to bring together, including city government, universities and business extending beyond the city’s top 25 hirers. “This is a really good opportunity and a wise move for the city,” Rossi said of the job fair, suggesting the city’s Human Services, Community Development and Personnel departments would lead on organizing an event, finding where to host it and getting commitments from employers to stay involved.

While no deadline was set for figuring out or holding a job fair, Benzan hoped it would be the start of at least an annual event and take place in time to help students earn money over the summer for upcoming semesters at college.

The outsourcing problem

Simmons

Simmons

Tainting the optimism of the talk about job fairs was testimony about how hiring can go astray when Cambridge institutions outsource services.

During public comment, two residents told councillors that Cambridge College had contracted with Burlington-based Hunter Protective Services, a security firm that lowered wages and working conditions as well as displacing about a dozen of the college’s current security guards, only recently unionized with the Service Employees International Union.

Councillor E. Denise Simmons had worked with the guards and college officials in September at the start of finding a new security company. The union presented some that met its standards, but Cambridge College hired Hunter in February in a process that Simmons and citizens said betrayed the transparency promised by President Deborah C. Jackson and Phillip Page, special assistant to Jackson.

“I walked out of that meeting very encouraged, and now I’m very discouraged,” Simmons said. “While I would not go so far as to suggest Cambridge College was being anything but straightforward at that meeting, I will state that my understanding of what constitutes an open line of communication seems very different from that of the administration.”

Along with Benzan’s job fair order, councillors supported an order from Simmons seeking support in getting Cambridge College and Hunter to the table with the union security guards and expressing disappointment with how things had worked out so far.

Outsourcing solutions

McGovern

McGovern

Lesley University food workers joined with the Unite Here union and signed their first contract this month after complaining to the council about the pay from Bon Appetit Management – the Palo Alto, Calif., company to which Lesley outsourced its cafeterias – and 11 months of negotiations with no help from Lesley. The university “respects the collective-bargaining process between the two parties,” a spokesman said in explaining the hands-off approach.

The trend alarmed Benzan, who suggested hiring commitments had to be locked in ahead of time to make sure outsourcing didn’t defeat the purpose of the job fairs, and fellow councillor Marc McGovern, who suggested they at least be at the fairs also.

“This issue of companies and universities outsourcing work and then stepping back and saying, ‘Well, it’s not our responsibility. We hired this company and they’re not paying people a living wage, or they’re not letting them unionize or they’re not hiring Cambridge people, it’s not us,’ it’s an easy out, and we really need to press them on that,” McGovern said. “It is their responsibility. They are putting out to bid their contracts and they can put in their [requests for proposals] that a certain number of Cambridge workers have to be hired.”

“We can’t let these folks pass the buck,” he said, especially since the job fairs can’t just be “about high-level jobs … It’s really about what are the jobs for people who are struggling and don’t have that skill set? And part of that too is inviting those companies that outsource, that actually do the hiring, and inviting them to the table as well. Councillor Benzan is right: We really have to hold a lot of these companies responsible.”