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Effort To Boost Employment Falls Short In Harlem

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

National retail chains have been operating stores in inner cities for years. Increasingly, host communities are trying to make sure that the employees in those stores live locally.

Reporter Matthew Schuerman of member station WNYC takes us to a new mall in the East Harlem section of New York to find out why hiring locally can be so difficult.

MATTHEW SCHUERMAN: The East River Plaza is built on the site of a former wire factory, in the middle of a neighborhood known for high unemployment and high poverty. Its stores began to open last fall.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Best Buy.

SCHUERMAN: Best Buy opened in March. Like other stores in the mall, Best Buy agreed to try to hire at least 60 percent of its employees from East Harlem when it signed its lease.

Ms. BARBARA BRAUNFELD (Operations Manager, Best Buy): We always look to hire from the local community that we work in. It's really important that our neighbors sell to our neighbors.

SCHUERMAN: That's Barbara Braunfeld, the store's operations manager. She says the store hired 42 percent of its employees from East Harlem.

Ms. BRAUNFELD: We had street teams that handed out flyers all throughout the neighborhood, just letting them know that we're, you know, we're hiring, we're looking for people.

SCHUERMAN: Costco opened at the mall in November with roughly the same percentage of local hires.

Laura Wolf-Powers teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. She isn't surprised East River Plaza has fallen short of its 60 percent goal.

Professor LAURA WOLF-POWERS (City and Regional Planning, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania): I don't think it's ever a mistake to set the bar high.

SCHUERMAN: Wolf-Powers has studied local hiring agreements around the country. She says very few malls even bothered to measure how many jobs go to nearby residents. And when they do, residents from the surrounding area tend to make up between 30 and 45 percent of a mall's workforce.

Prof. WOLF-POWERS: There's just a kind of saturation point in terms of the ability of the retail tenant to recruit people who are from the local neighborhood.

SCHUERMAN: The reasons are complex. Best Buy actually thinks it did a great job because the store hired one out of every two local applicants. But Best Buy only saw the most promising candidates. Those flyers that were handed out, they directed job seekers to make their first stop at a nonprofit organization called STRIVE, which teaches high school dropouts and others the skills they need to enter the workforce.

Unidentified Woman #1: Good morning. How can I help you?

Unidentified Woman #2: I have a flyer that...

SCHUERMAN: The mall's developer hired STRIVE to prescreen candidates, but a lot of people who came to STRIVE had criminal backgrounds and retailers simply don't want to hire them.

Katherine Strickle is in charge of the mall recruitment program for STRIVE. She says other applicants that STRIVE thought were qualified failed for other reasons.

Ms. KATHERINE STRICKLE (Operations Coordinator, STRIVE): A lot of people were having a very difficult time getting through the interview.

SCHUERMAN: Strickle says many applicants simply didn't give the right answers.

Ms. STRICKLE: For instance, the question of why do you want to work for our company was just because I need a job, and employers do not want to hear that.

SCHUERMAN: Jasmine de Leon(ph) is one applicant who fell into that trap. She applied at Costco but didn't get a call back.

Ms. JASMINE DE LEON: At one point I did say, well, I do need a job, 'cause I know I was qualified for it and I know that I could actually stay in the job for a very long time.

SCHUERMAN: To boost the local hiring numbers, STRIVE instituted workshops to prepare job seekers for the interview.

Ms. DE LEON: I definitely have to go through these steps, which I'm going to take this home and study a little more about it.

SCHUERMAN: No one is suggesting that inner city poverty can be erased if job seekers answer questions at an interview differently, but their chances of finding work could improve.

Target is hiring now and will open at the East Harlem Mall this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Matthew Schuerman in New York City.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.