As we noted in this space on Monday, the North Carolina Fund served as a template for President Johnson’s ambitious—and effective—national “War on Poverty” that was launched 50 years ago. While such efforts began long ago, the policy prescriptions administered by these efforts remain relevant today. Case in point: the North Carolina Fund established a manpower development program aimed at helping to improve the employability of workers in rural parts of eastern North Carolina. Formed as the state’s economy was undergoing structural changes, this program provided jobless workers with on-the-job training, direct job placement, employment counseling, and much more.
With only one job available for nearly every two jobless workers in the state today, policymakers should give serious consideration to a modern version of this program that will fit today’s needs as Tar Heels continue to struggle with elevated rates of unemployment and long-term unemployment. Highlighting the North Carolina Fund’s Manpower Program, below is a second excerpt from “Everybody’s Problem”: Whites, Blacks, and the Fight Against Poverty in Eastern North Carolina, 1963-1969,” written by Karen M. Hawkins and currently under review with the University of Florida Press.
Manpower Program attracts community support in Eastern North Carolina, January 1966
An experimental program developed and supervised by the North Carolina Fund, Manpower Improvement Through Community Effort (MITCE) promised to reach at least five thousand unemployed rural persons in its first year, including adults from farm families earning less than $1,200 a year. The ways that MITCE intended to reach this population included on-the-job training, direct job placement, employment counseling, vocational guidance, and all other means approved by the Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) of 1962 to secure steady employment or enhance future employability.[i] Most of the funding for the demonstration phase of MITCE was provided by the U.S. Department of Labor under the Office of Manpower, Automation, and Training (OMAT) and was originally limited to the area of three North Carolina Fund Community Action Programs (CAPs) in Eastern North Carolina, one of which was Craven Operation Progress (COP).[ii] As outlined by the North Carolina Fund, one of the key purposes of MITCE was to validate that on-the-job training is “a realistic and desirable training device in rural areas” and is “the most efficient way of meeting the needs of the small employers who exist in these areas,” in hopes that similar projects could be funded in rural communities across the state and throughout the nation.[iii] Prior to the War on Poverty, programs funded under the MDTA had been essentially limited to the unemployed who lived in urban centers where large private employers with nationwide operations, which were the most willing and able to efficiently train vast numbers of potential employees, were relatively abundant.
The North Carolina Fund and the Department of Labor encouraged the expansion of manpower in North Carolina’s predominately rural communities, such as Craven County, for many of the same reasons that MITCE would be so readily accepted by local employers, potential employees, and community leaders. By the mid-1960s, at the same time that service-type jobs were on a historic rise, the nation’s number of skilled and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs was also growing exponentially due to new consumer demands and technological advances that boosted efficient plant production. As a result, unskilled workers, who would represent less than 10 percent of the manufacturing production worker total in 1965, would become even further marginalized in the American economy.[iv] At least six MITCE field representatives, several of whom were Eastern North Carolinians themselves, were assigned to conduct door-to-door surveys in target areas of heavy unemployment, underemployment, and high incidence of poverty to discover the reasons for individuals’ unemployment or lack of income as well as their families’ employment needs. These field representatives’ ultimate goal was to persuade the unemployed individuals to begin the screening and testing process that would presumably match them with an obliging local employer either through direct job placement or on-the-job training. If individuals could not be matched with an employer, because they were underage, lacked experience, or had educational deficiencies, or health issues, MITCE staff could refer them to NYC, Adult Basic Education classes, institutional training at the Craven IEC, the local health or welfare departments, or counseling provided by MITCE.
In addition to the efforts of the field representatives and counselors, two training supervisors within MITCE each contacted at least one new local employer per week to learn about their labor needs and any immediate opportunities for placement of unemployed persons in jobs or on-the-job training. Sometimes a local employer would agree to sign a contract with Craven MITCE for direct placement but employers more often preferred the lower-risk option of on-the-job training, which also functioned as a trial period. Moreover, the training supervisors informed the employers that agreeing to contract with MITCE meant not only that they would be in charge of the requirements and the number of weeks of the training but also that they would receive a certain amount of reimbursement to defray the costs of training. These offers of reimbursement were crucial in winning over employers to MITCE. Because many business owners in Craven County ran small operations of twenty-five workers or less, few could afford either the time or the money expense of training new workers, which placed inexperienced young persons at a particular disadvantage in finding employment. Yet employers may have been won over just as much, if not more, by the fact that MITCE supervisors pre-screened the potential trainees, thereby weeding out those not genuinely committed to a five-day work week or prepared for the jobs in which they might be placed. Jack Jones was one of a growing number of businessmen in Craven who found that MITCE suited their needs and preferences, as seen by training supervisor field reports between October 1965 and January 1966. Even those who were not hiring at the time expressed approval of the manpower program. “I was surprised and pleased with the reception I got,” Dave Sasser wrote after interviewing potential employers in Havelock. “All of the businessmen I contacted were overwhelmingly in favor of the program.”[v] MITCE supervisor Charlie Boyd received the same type of positive feedback from local businessmen, many of whom agreed to a manpower contract for trainees. One of those employers told Boyd that “matching men with jobs were the right move” while another affirmed that “this program is great for the employees and employer.”[vi] Boyd and other Craven MITCE representatives heard similar statements from many more businessmen in terms of how the manpower program helped both employer and employee and, in turn, the overall community.
The positive reception that Craven MITCE received from local businessmen so early in its demonstration phase was rather remarkable given that many of these businessmen, most of whom were small businessmen and politically conservative, had made it clear in the past that they were not strongly in favor or were even directly opposed to COP and the War on Poverty. Although many of the employers contacted by MITCE never had anyone explain the manpower concept to them before, almost all who needed workers became open to the idea, including an employer at New Bern’s WNBE radio station who had originally told Charlie Boyd that he wanted “nothing to do with any affiliate of the poverty program.”[vii] This apparent disconnect did not necessarily mean, however, that these businessmen were behaving as hypocrites. Their dislike for COP was based in part on of a lack of knowledge of the programs as well as a sense that either manpower was a “give-away program,” overly wasteful of tax payer money, or interested primarily in bestowing preferences upon blacks, or all three. These men certainly participated largely out of their own financial self-interest; however the program’s philosophy that with a new job the unemployed who “had once been a drag on the local economy” could become “useful, tax-paying citizen[s]” also fit their worldview.[viii] Many advocated the program from a similar belief to COP director Robert Monte’s that “There is dignity and satisfaction for every person that does a job or performs a service that is done well—both to the employee and employer.”[ix]
Businessmen who may have originally believed that funding for the program was excessive became convinced that this was not so; moreover, they saw its tangible results first- hand. In addition, many of these businessmen, particularly those affiliated with larger and well-respected employers such as Belk’s, Tryon Palace, and Commodore Boats, had long been expected to contribute to the well-being of their community by volunteering their time or money including becoming involved in a civic group or donating to the local Red Cross.[x] Because of the direct assistance manpower brought them and their feeling that by participating in it they were helping to alleviate the local unemployment problem, conservative businessmen could and did widely support MITCE in spite of its origins as a government-backed program.
But MITCE did not just match employees with the interests and needs of employer. It also served the interests of the poor and unemployed, most of who desired the benefits of steady employment. MITCE reduced some of the ways, both intentional and unintentional, that employers discriminated in their hiring processes; these included preferring to hire kin (at least within family-operated establishments) and relying on word of mouth and current employee recommendations. These and other methods tended to exclude job applicants who were not of employers’ race and social class. Whether or not Craven employers—most of whom were white—understood the changes that were happening around them, MITCE offered them never-before-seen incentives to be more open to training or hiring those they might not have considered or those they might have feared giving a chance to before, most notably blacks. “Many fears disappear when you get to know a person,” Sarah Herbin of the North Carolina Good Neighbor Council once told a group of Wake County Democratic Women in 1964. “And the best way to get to know a person is to work with him.”[xi]
Local blacks throughout Craven, both the poor and the middle-class, were just as willing to recognize the necessity for greater training and education for black advancement. Black school principal and COP board member John R. Hill lamented, for instance, the case of seven former NYC enrollees, all high school graduates, who remained unemployed and unable to find jobs because of their low skills as well as the lack of industry in the area.[xii] Fellow COP board member David Whitfield, a fifty-seven-year-old janitor at New Bern’s Christ Episcopal Church, concurred that higher-paying jobs were of paramount importance for blacks and added his belief that COP and the poor would be better served by putting at least as much emphasis on education as on neighborhood organizing.[xiii] Catherine Berry, a housewife and president of the James City PTA, who like Whitfield had been appointed to the COP board in August 1965 to represent the black poor, agreed with Hill and Whitfield that “the major need of local Negroes is for job training to enable them to gain better employment,” since it was difficult “for a Negro to get a job in Craven County.” Despite Berry’s belief that “a White is always hired before an equally well-qualified Negro,” she admitted that MITCE was attempting to reverse this trend.[xiv] New Bern mortician Oscar Dove also concluded that since “Craven Negroes have never had many job opportunities open to them” that the “best thing COP could do [is] to provide increased education and job training.”[xv]
[i] “Excerpt from: A Rural Manpower Program in North Carolina” in National Association for Community Development, Community Programs on Employment and Manpower (Washington, D.C.: NACD, April 1966), 253.
[ii] The other two CAPs that received funding for MITCE under its demonstration phase were Nash-Edgecombe Economic Development (NEED) and Tri-County Community Action (TCCA), which included Richmond, Scotland and Robeson counties.
[iii] Ibid., 246.
[iv] Charles E. Silberman, “The Comeback of the Blue-Collar Worker,” Fortune, February 1965, 216. Much of this manufacturing growth occurred in spite of continued technological change and automation in the nation. In fact, the introduction of advanced machines could require more workers and open up new jobs since the machines were able to accomplish tasks not done before by men. See Charles E. Silberman, “The Real News About Automation,” Fortune, January 1965, 124-125, 222, 227.
[v] Report by Dave Sasser, November 11, 1965, folder 5512, NCFR.
[vi] Report by Charlie Boyd, October 28, 1965; Report by Charlie Boyd, November 16, 1965, folder 5503, NCFR.
[vii] Report by Charlie Boyd, November 19, 1965, folder 5503, NCFR.
[viii] Vaughn, Manpower Improvement Through Community Effort background paper, folder 5525, NCFR.
[ix] Notes of Bob Monte, folder 5038, NCFR.
[x] Theodore Levitt, “The Dangers of Social Responsibility,” Harvard Business Review 36, no. 5 (September-October 1958): 41-50.
[xi] “Speaker Discusses North Carolina Good Neighbor Council,” News & Observer, May 1, 1964.
[xii] John R. Hill, interview by John Miller, Vanceboro, NC, July 28, 1966, transcript, folder 7093, NCFR.
[xiii] David Whitfield, interview by John Miller, New Bern, NC, July 28, 1966, transcript, folder 7093, NCFR.
[xiv] Catherine Berry, interview by John Miller, James City, NC, April 15, 1966, transcript, folder 7091, NCFR.
[xv] Oscar Dove, interview by John Miller, New Bern, NC, July 26, 1966, transcript, folder 7093, NCFR.