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New program aims to match up skills, education and job opportunities in North Minneapolis

The program, North@Work, is designed to provide job training, placement and retention as it works in partnership with employers, nonprofits and educational institutions.

Northside Funders Group Executive Director Tawanna Black says that North@Work is aimed at creating thousands of employment for black men in north Minneapolis by 2020.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Keenan Thomas has done all that he could do to secure a permanent job: He earned a certificate in carpentry, enrolled in five different employment agencies and applied for any job opening he could find — to no avail.

Thomas said he is desperate for employment not only to gain financial independence; he needs it so he can become a role model for his four young boys. “If they see me going in and out of jail, that’s what they’re going to end up doing,” noted Thomas, who served time in prison for a robbery he committed at 15. “I want to be given a chance.”

Thomas may get his wish, thanks a new $22 million initiative set up by the Minneapolis-based Northside Funders Group that aims to connect 2,000 African-American men with living-wage jobs by 2020.

The program, North@Work, is designed to provide job training, placement and retention as it works in partnership with employers, nonprofits and educational institutions in the area.

‘I don’t need more classes’

According to North@Work, 81 percent of black residents in North Side neighborhoods have at least a high school diploma, 36 percent have attended college or obtained an associate degree and 12 percent hold a bachelor’s degree.

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Yet the city often doesn’t take advantage of those skills. Unemployment among African-Americans in the city is almost four times higher than that of whites in Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area — which is home to nearly 3.5 million people — was found to be the third worst city for black Americans, according to a recent study, which stated that the Twin Cities have the highest black-white racial employment disparities in the nation. The report added that a typical white family earns about $73,700 annually — one of the highest incomes in the nation — compared to $28,000 for a typical black family. 

Thomas’ experience is all too common. After graduating with a certificate in carpentry from Summit Academy OIC, a vocational training and job placement program in North Side, Thomas participated in five different programs that help job seekers with résumés, cover letters and job interview skills.

Each time he completed the training, however, there were no job placement opportunities. “You can only do that so much,” he said. “I don’t need more classes like that. What I need is to be placed in a job where I can start generating some revenues for my family.” 

That frustrating experience is exactly what North@Work is designed to address. Northside Funders Group Executive Director Tawanna Black said her team at North@Work plans to aggressively seek potential participants for the program, which will be launched this month. “North@Work looks to partner with an organization who will be responsible to really be out on the ground, not waiting for the men to come in the doors of North@Work to receive services,” she said.

The initiative will open with a pilot program that accepts 20 men who will receive training in a career path of their choice. Participants will be placed in living-wage jobs within 18 months of their entry into the program. 

Black explained that her team will not place a job seeker in any job opening just because it’s available. Instead, the program will help men pick a path that’s right for them. “Most men [in north Minneapolis] know that construction is an opportunity that they can go seek,” she said. “But if you don’t want to do construction, you might not know what other job opportunities are available.”

Black added: “So this is designed to both help men say ‘what am I great at, what innate skills and talents to do I have that can be deployed and what are the job opportunities in this entire region that I could tap into’ …  and then support them as they pursue education in those area.”

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.