Detour of Duty

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You wouldn’t know it if you lived here, but the federal government is paying New York City $126 million a year to give workers and the companies that employ them the know-how they need to stay in business. With the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, or WIA, Congress also supplied plenty of jargon to make it happen. Local “Workforce Investment Boards” now set job-training priorities and determine how to spend federal money. “One-stop centers” offer both employers and jobseekers a range of services, from labor market information to help writing resumes and preparing for interviews. Individual Training Accounts (ITAs)–vouchers distributed to each worker who qualifies for training–introduce unprecedented consumer choice to a job-training system that had previously asked workers to accept a limited range of options.

In a city where the unemployment rate for low-wage workers is painfully high, there’s certainly no lack of demand. Yet aside from one underutilized one-stop center in Jamaica, Queens, WIA is still lost in the big city. Only last summer, when Washington warned that millions in federal funding were at risk, did the city hurriedly draw up a plan to put the law into action.

New York City’s Workforce Investment Board, which includes government agency heads, nonprofit service providers and business leaders, now has to decide where to go from here. They might do well to think twice, though, before following the lead of other cities in New York State, where a trend has emerged: The local boards, eager to enlist the support of business communities traditionally skeptical of government-run programs, have made taking care of business their guiding principle–literally.

In Rochester, the city’s one-stop center looks to supply businesses with the labor they need. Matthew Hurlbutt is the director of operations for the Rochester Resource Alliance (RRA), the nonprofit that administers WIA in Rochester. “RRA is trying to make a connection to business,” Hurlbutt says.

Hurlbutt adds that his agency’s focus on employers’ demands automatically helps workers, because it means they get trained for the jobs that are actually out there. “If you don’t meet the business needs,” he argues, “then you’re not helping the individual jobseekers who come in the door.”

Founded last year, RRA is a joint effort of the local Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Management Council, an employers association with over 350 member companies. One of RRA’s major efforts since the one-stop opened last July has been a survey of Rochester businesses to find out what kinds of skills they want their workers to have now and what they’ll require in the future. Through WIA funding, the Alliance has also been providing customized training for workers already employed at local businesses, including Corning, Inc., one of the city’s most prominent employers.

From the perspective of the businesspeople that dominate Rochester’s workforce board, the focus on training people who already have jobs makes sense. Rochester’s unemployment rate is relatively low, and many of those who might have been without jobs a few years ago now rank among the city’s working poor.

Yet Rochester’s welfare rolls still include plenty of clients who could benefit from new work skills. Past experience suggests that with sufficient time, training and support, they can land career-track jobs in health care, office work and other skilled fields. A number of nonprofit organizations traditionally have trained workers for those jobs, whose existence does not depend on a single company’s performance. Now, however, these nonprofits are seeing potential clients pushed into unskilled service-economy jobs instead–and finding that their own bottom lines are in serious trouble.

Under WIA, “work first” is now the guiding philosophy of the nation’s jobs system. Since the program went into effect last summer, federally funded training of low-skilled workers has declined by 35 percent nationwide. No longer can unemployed jobseekers walk in and get training: they now must first conduct a supervised job search. If they can’t find work that way, they go through “intensive services,” involving job counseling, help with interview skills and other services. Only when all other options are exhausted does the system provide job training.

Debbi Ellis, director of Rochester’s one-stop, explains that when jobseekers meet with employment counselors, the idea is to determine whether each client has any marketable skills that might help him or her find employment immediately. “Our main course is to try to help them find employment,” she says. “But if training is called for, we’ll support that.”

When training is called for is a matter each local Workforce Investment Board has to decide for itself. In Rochester, the most common answer is “never.” Of the nearly 3,400 people who have used the one-stop’s services since it opened last July, only about a hundred have received vouchers for job training.

James Norman, a member of the local Workforce Investment Board and executive director of Rochester’s nonprofit Action for a Better Community, says that job training in his city is simply no longer designed to serve jobseekers who start out with little education and marginal skills. The emphasis on training for those who already have jobs, he says, “doesn’t recognize the fact that we need support systems, training and counseling, and case management to help people make the transition from welfare to work.” As for the board, Norman believes it would “be content to put all of the dollars into customized training [for companies] and matching funds for employer training.”


Jane Kriegler has seen the new regime take a huge toll on Action for a Better Community, where she serves as deputy director for employment and training. By any measure, its ABC Training Institute has been a success: For 27 years, ABC has trained low-income Rochester residents as certified nursing aides, a living wage occupation with prospects for raises and career advancement. The Training Institute places 90 percent of its graduates in jobs and has won several awards for its teaching and effectiveness. As an RRA partner, ABC agreed to train an estimated 155 workers referred from the Rochester one-stop, and even to send staff members to work at the one-stop center, with no compensation.

But since last July, ABC has received fewer than 30 referrals from the one-stop–and just one for its nursing aide program. It has suffered a dramatic revenue shortfall as a result. But Kriegler says the real loss is to jobseekers. “There’s a tremendous demand in the community for certified nursing aides,” she argues, pointing to her organization’s stellar placement rates. “WIA talks in terms of being driven by labor demand. There’s a real dearth of CNAs. That’s why I’m surprised that it’s been so difficult to get [trainees] through the one-stop.”

Nonprofits providing employment services to special groups have also been hit hard. Lifespan, a nonprofit that provides job training and placement help to workers age 45 and older, has lost more than $100,000 since the move to WIA, according to director Carol Sims. To keep its doors open, Lifespan has turned to the United Way for help and has devoted scarce resources to a last-ditch fundraising campaign. “Some of that is poured into debt,” Sims sighs.

Part of the supply problem is that the one-stop itself hasn’t lived up to expectations so far. While the WIB predicted 25,000 visits each year, between last July and this March only 3,370 clients availed themselves of the one-stop’s resources. Only 249 even made it into intensive services; of that number, just over 200 were placed in whatever job they could find with the skills they already had.

Kriegler suspects that most clients who formerly might have gone into her program have moved instead into lower-paying jobs with much less potential to lead to career employment. She’s well aware that major WIA resources are going into helping workers who are already employed at local companies: “The philosophy in Rochester is to put money into retraining. These businesses seem to figure that if there’s an employee you have on the payroll already, it’s better to upgrade and promote them and open up those entry-level jobs.”

Officials inside RRA concur that local employers are most inclined to support training after workers are hired and have proven their value as employees. Using WIA dollars to upgrade the skills of those workers, the RRA maintains, allows the system to create new openings at the bottom of the job ladder, as the current working poor move up to higher rungs.

James Norman doesn’t object to training workers who are already employed. But people trying to lift themselves from welfare into steady jobs are now getting less help, not more. The choices RRA has made, he believes, have hurt those who need the most assistance. “So far,” says Norman, “it’s being done to the disregard of those who are not part of the workforce right now.”

Matt Hurlbutt acknowledges that the transition to WIA has been a tough haul for Rochester’s job trainers: “I think it’s been a big change for them, and it hasn’t been easy.” Acknowledging that the one-stop just isn’t visible enough in the community, Hurlbutt hopes that a marketing initiative planned for this spring will draw more customers through the door and into training.

To help community-based providers stay afloat, the WIB has directed them toward alternative funding sources and written letters of support. But direct help, such as bridge loans, is not on the table. “We can’t do that,” Hurlbutt says. “Our board is very interested in showing results, so we can’t just pay for keeping staff around.”

Nonprofits like ABC will remain a part of Rochester’s job-training landscape, Hurlbutt says. But he adds that the providers have to face new realities. “The key is, are you meeting business demand? The system, across the board, has got to reach out to the business community and provide training for the skills they need.”

David Jason Fischer is the workforce development project director for the Center for an Urban Future.

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