Asleep on the Job

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Getting poor people into good jobs is hard work, and no one knows it better than Carol Marsh, director of employment and training services for Good Shepherd Services.

“Our job is labor-intensive,” she says. “Students must understand they are beginning a partnership with us. It’s a big commitment.”

Marsh oversees a training program for poor women to learn computer programs, an intensive class in career counseling and an adult literacy program. On staff she has a job developer, a career counselor and a social worker for the two Women in Self Help (WISH) programs run out of a Park Slope building.

Each of their clients, former homemakers venturing into the workplace after a divorce or after their husbands become disabled or die, first gets an interview and a tour. Then she hooks up with an advisor who works closely with her as she goes through job training or learns “job readiness” skills like interviewing or resume writing. Every student can talk with the career counselor at any point to discuss personal problems that have left her out of the job market. And each woman is assigned a social worker who follows up with her every month after she leaves the program.

Of the 77 women WISH trained last year, 71 percent have found jobs so far, at places like nonprofits, law firms, banks and insurance companies. Marsh says the one-on-one treatment is necessary to pair people up with decent jobs. The research backs her up. In a U.S. Department of Labor demonstration program, says Lisa Ranghelli of the Center for Community Change in Washington D.C., welfare recipients picked job-training programs that helped them the most when they had personal counseling.

New York State is in danger of losing these careful connections, however, as it scrambles to come up to speed with a law passed last summer by Congress. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) demands that the states completely revamp job training by July 2000. Much like welfare reform before it, WIA is poised to revolutionize the business of putting people to work.

Many job trainers are thrilled by the new law, which promises to reform a sloppy, disorganized system. Many states have already taken advantage of the act to experiment with smarter programs, creating focus groups, conducting studies and hiring innovative reformers. New York, on the other hand, has done nothing but hold a few general preliminary meetings. The new law demands “one-stop shops” that are intake and referral centers for the jobless; New York City has no viable model. In fact, New York State still doesn’t have an official plan.

WISH and the approximately 100 other small job-training nonprofit programs like it around the city are part of the fabric of the city’s economy, each responsible for dozens to hundreds of new careers every year. But Albany’s inertia has put community-based job trainers like WISH in jeopardy. It also means that the state’s best chance to help 529,000 unemployed New Yorkers may go wasted.

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Since 1983, the federal government’s training policy has been to fund a jumble of overlapping programs via the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). The act provides close to a billion dollars a year for local training services for specific groups of people: former homemakers, welfare recipients, veterans, people who lost their jobs in mass layoffs or factory closings.

Under the old plan, in effect until July 2000, states hand out money to regional, quasi-governmental Private Industry Councils staffed by representatives from business, government, unions and educational groups. The PICs then fund community colleges, government agencies, nonprofits and private for-profits that run training and placement programs.

But the system can be hard to navigate for the jobless. Many government agencies don’t release useful information about the quality of their programs, or don’t tell applicants about smaller programs–WISH depends on local advertising to find new clients. The whole process is fragmented and atomized, and smart legislators saw a burning need for a new system that would organize and coordinate it. “JTPA was a hodgepodge of funding streams which was very difficult to administer,” explains Bonnie Potter, chair of the New York City Employment Training Coalition, a group of 80-odd nonprofit and for-profit trainers.

WIA was designed to fix the mess. States are now supposed to be developing “one-stop” career centers that will be portals to the rest of the job-search world, providing a launching point into all the other public, private, nonprofit and for-profit training and placement programs.

“The new concept is that everybody who needs employment and training will go through one central system,” explains Potter, who is also deputy director of a JTPA-funded training program that prepares women on welfare for jobs as carpenters, electricians and plumbers. The idea is that the one-stop would only be a first stop. Anyone looking for a job can walk into the one-stop and get interviewed and assessed. Then, instead of being assigned to a particular program, they walk out with a list of certified training and placement programs and choose the one they like best. In New York City, this means career centers run by the city employment and welfare agencies could, for example, suggest that former Brooklyn homemakers go to WISH for job training.

The new law makes two other big changes. By switching to a voucher-style system, the act puts a lot more control in the hands of job seekers. It also makes the whole referral and training system open to anybody looking for a job, not just welfare recipients or veterans.

Facing a deadline little more than a year away, many states have started up pilot programs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are now 820 one-stops nationwide.

But New York State is lagging. City Department of Employment spokesman Ed Garvey reports that there are not yet any official one-stops in New York City, and neither the state’s Department of Employment or Department of Labor could describe any plan of action for the upcoming changes–even though the state was supposed to submit its plan as early as April. It means that nobody knows how a system designed to help particular populations will be retooled to accommodate the thousands of New Yorkers who could walk through the door next year.

So far, the only WIA news in New York City is that the city’s Human Resources Administration has won a $500,000 grant from the state to create a one-stop center. It’s the only grant of its kind in the city, confirming the suspicions of local job trainers that, given welfare boss Jason Turner’s reputation for pushing welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs, his techniques might be expanded under the new law.

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A lot of people who now run local, individualized job-training and placement programs think that the one-stop switch could make the kind of focus and follow-up that clients get at WISH impossible. They say that without careful planning and smart organization, one-stops won’t be able to provide clients with the one-on-one attention they need. With a mandate to serve everyone, the centers easily could turn out to be a disaster–confusing, inefficient and overcrowded–especially if they start providing classes themselves, which they can do by obtaining a waiver from the feds.

“No one agency can provide all the services that each person coming in the door needs, nor should they be responsible for that,” says Larry Jackson, director of East Harlem Employment Services/ Strive. “Otherwise, your customers receive watered-down services.” His program counsels people on the emotional aspects of looking for and holding down a job, teaching them to cope with rejections and workaday stress.

Advocates like Jackson say that where the one-stops fall short is a good place for the small community-based trainers to pick up the slack, building the best of both worlds–efficiency with personalized care. But unless the state puts them back in the picture, WIA may cut them out of the deal. All existing job programs will have to be certified by new state and local boards. Community colleges and vocational training schools automatically get the okay, but everyone else must prove their program, then wait to hear from the boards. They worry how they’ll survive the wait. And since they don’t yet know what they’ll need to prove in order to be certified, they can’t yet start collecting the numbers to prove it.

“It’s clear from the legislation that community colleges get a foot up–community-based programs are not even eligible in the beginning,” explains Doug Turetsky, director of policy and advocacy for United Neighborhood Houses, a coalition of 38 settlement houses, many of which run unemployment and training programs funded by JTPA.

The delays now won’t make things any easier down the road. Isabelle Andrews, assistant director for the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals, an Albany-based group that works closely with the state Department of Labor, agrees that the funding changes may trip up smaller local trainers. “It’s not going to be an easy process in New York–we are a bit behind,” she admits.

Even if the community trainers get money through WIA, they will face a totally new funding system. Under the old procedure, community-based trainers served specific groups of people, giving them a steady flow of customers and income. Now, the one-stop system will leave it up to the job seekers.

Andy Van Kleunen, workforce policy director of the nonprofit Paraprofessional Healthcare Ins-titute, explains that neighborhood trainers won’t be able to predict their workload or their budget. His 15-year-old South Bronx Cooperative Home Care program has more than 500 women currently working as home aides; most of them formerly on welfare, they now work full time with benefits. Under the new system, complains Van Kleunen, “you don’t know how many people will walk through the door and when. And once folks come in, it’s not clear how we would get paid.”

The new one-stops are supposed to serve more people and keep better records of their job placement and retention. But even as welfare reform puts more people in the job market, federal JTPA funding has crashed. In 1985, there was $1.9 billion in JTPA money for adults; by 1996, the amount had fallen to $850 million. So far, the federal government hasn’t provided any new money for WIA, or even said what the program’s budget will be.

In the meantime, community organizers are not sitting around waiting for state and local governments to figure out what this all means. Local groups like the New York City Employment Training Coalition meet regularly to help community trainers plan for the future. United Neighborhood Houses released a policy paper in late March as a guide for helping community-based organizers in the city deal with the upcoming changes. The National Puerto Rican Forum has held two conferences, with speakers from HRA and the state labor department, focusing on what WIA will mean.

Even within organizations like WISH, directors and teachers started meeting months ago to start what little strategic planning they can do. As Marsh points out, they don’t want to end up jobless when the new system kicks in.