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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

U.S. companies — desperate for workers despite the threat of recession — are lowering the qualifications they've previously demanded of new employees. But they are finding that many long-term jobless Americans first require training and help in the very basics — getting to work, doing so on time, and paying for any required uniforms.

What's happening: Cities across the U.S. are stepping in with "life and employment skills" classes and assistance for Americans who have been left out of the economy — former convicts, ex-drug addicts, and others at the fringes.

  • Among the winners in these new circumstances: Mara Picazo, a 29-year-old Denver mother of two who three years ago was earning just $9.25 an hour. Now, as an apprentice on a construction site, she is on the verge of tripling her former wage to $30 an hour.

The big picture: One of the major factors animating the last two or three years of political turbulence in the U.S. has been the economic sidelining of millions of Americans as jobs have moved overseas or been automated away.

But this narrative leaves out an invisible swath of the country that is absent from the primary Labor Department statistics: tens of millions of hard-core unemployed, who have been jobless for a year or more.

  • For years, company executives and government officials have described these people as largely beyond help — too old to be retrained for new work, too drug-addled to pass blood tests, or disqualified because of a prison record.

The dire need for new workers has turned this reality on its head.

Picazo works for a contractor that is part of a five-year, $1.2 billion project to rebuild a 10-mile section of Interstate 70, north of Denver. The project's lead is Kiewit, a major construction company. John Locke, a program manager for Kiewit, tells Axios that the firm is looking to hire up to 600 people by next summer.

  • But the city has a 3% unemployment rate, much tighter than the national 3.9% figure, making it extremely difficult to find workers.
  • This has left companies like Kiewit open to hiring people they might not previously have considered.
  • But Locke said these workers come with a lot of "barriers" to working in a traditional job — like financial problems that prevent them from having a regular place to live, transportation, or childcare.

About a year and a half ago, the city and state launched a program called WorkNow, an association that organizes all of these services. It can help find money to pay emergency rent, provide a pair of boots, set up shuttles to a construction site so workers can be on time, and find child care.

  • WorkNow helped Picazo when she recently had "problems with money. WorkNow helped me pay for books — they paid $400. They helped me buy tools," Picazo tells Axios.
  • Now Picazo has become an evangelist for her contractor, Sturgeon Electric, and WorkNow. "We are spending a lot of time going out and telling people, 'This is a career opportunity. You don't have to go to college.'"

Katrina Wert, a director at WorkNow, tells Axios that participants in the program are people from "neighborhoods that haven't accessed prosperity." They generally have lower than average education and lower than average income, she said.

  • "We help people get more qualified for industries looking for workers," Wert said.
  • Construction is perfect because there is a low barrier to entry and it is relatively easy to be promoted once you are hired, she said.

In Washington, D.C., Henry Schultz tells a similar story. He is an adviser to the Excel Automotive Institute, which teaches auto mechanics largely to ex-convicts.

  • Last year, 12 young men and women finished the course, and nine of them passed a grueling electrical certification course.
  • Later this month, they will continue and learn to fix brakes, steering and suspension systems.
  • When they are done, Ford has agreed to hire them as entry-level mechanics, Schultz said. The average entry-level pay is about $16.50 an hour, he said. Another class of 16 will also begin the course. "We cater to at-risk young adults," he said. "90% to 95% are ex-offenders" and are on average 24 or 25 years old.

But before any get started, they have to take a 48-hour "life and employment skills" course, carried out by an agency called Thrive, that is similar to the Denver program, teaching how to be on time, carry oneself, write a resume, and so on.

  • Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, said that a test will come when the economy slows down. "Do they keep their jobs or are they the first to be laid off, and if they are, how much of those skills translate to the next job?" Kolko said.

Go deeper

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.