Through a mix of existing grants and federal stimulus money, the New York state legislature is directing $39 million into new workforce programs through 2010. Officials at the state Office of Temporary Assistance and Disability (OTDA), which is in charge of distributing the funds, hope that by securing short-term jobs for unemployed adults facing obstacles to regular work – like a previous criminal conviction or long-term unemployment – they can stimulate the state’s weak economy and invigorate its stagnant labor market.

The funding – which channels a significantly greater share of TANF grants to subsidized wage programs, thereby triggering matching federal stimulus funds – will go to three new initiatives, for green jobs, health care jobs and transitional jobs. The state’s 58 social services districts on Aug. 14 submitted competitive bids for the green program and narratives and budgets for the others, which were to be reviewed and finalized by OTDA within six weeks. The city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), in charge of welfare and many workforce programs in the city, submitted proposals for spending as much as $25 million on efforts including training, case management and job placement. HRA officials estimate that their programs could find work for 2,500 New Yorkers.

With the state unemployment rate at its highest since 1992, it may seem a challenging time to coax employers to add to their payrolls. But because the programs place participants in short-term jobs and subsidize their wages, officials hope that some businesses and nonprofit employers will step up and hire – if not for regular positions, then at least for the outlined 12 months. At the same time, by paying wages to recently unemployed, lower-income New Yorkers – who are more likely to spend money quickly on necessities – the initiatives are designed to stimulate the broader economy.

But there are no guarantees that participants will find regular work after they complete a subsidized wage program. And with many economists predicting unemployment staying high even after the economy begins a recovery, the long-term career prospects for participants are uncertain.

Mindy Tarlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Economic Opportunities, which works with employers and the formerly incarcerated, embraced the programs, despite the poor job market. “[T]he best way to get a job is to have a job,” Tarlow wrote in an e-email. “The ability to build a reference, among other things, is so important to low-skilled people with limited work experience.” She added that she would be “delighted” to have the opportunity to submit a proposal to HRA for expanding a transitional jobs program at her organization that employs former convicts.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, was more circumspect. “I think these programs are definitely helpful,” Lower-Basch wrote in an e-mail. “But given the overall size of the local labor market, and the depth of the recession, I don’t think anyone thinks these programs on their own are going to make a dent in the overall unemployment rate.”

She added that the jobs could help participants by paying much-needed wages, and by preparing them with skills to help them find work when employers do begin hiring. “I don’t think anyone can promise that all the participants will be employed in unsubsidized jobs six months from now,” Lower-Basch wrote, “but I’m confident that they’ll have a better shot at being employed in six months than if they spend the time being unemployed and chasing after jobs that don’t exist right now.”

Some of the greatest challenges that OTDA and each county throughout the state will have to overcome are embodied by the transitional jobs program in particular. More specifically than either other program, it targets the hardest-to-serve populations, including the formerly incarcerated and “disconnected youth” who are both out of school and out of work. The program is by far the largest and best funded of the three, receiving $25 million across the state, with money set to flow to every local service district, including more than $16 million for the city.

But unlike the smaller programs in health care and green jobs, two sectors expected to grow, there are no requirements for what type of work participants will do, or what training they might receive, which may leave participants with skills that are not in demand. And though it is better funded, its stimulus funding evaporates in 2010, which will limit it to just one or two cohorts at fully funded levels.

Ketny Jean-Francois, a co-chair of the low-income advocacy group Community Voices Heard, said that the success or failure of the program hinged on training and case management. “Without training, [transitional jobs are] like a temp job, a low-paying, entry-level job,” without the chance for much advancement, said Jean-Francois, who joined CVH when she was a participant in HRA’s Back to Work program. “A true transitional job gives a person training and experience.” She acknowledged that some participants in workforce programs might face tough obstacles to full-time employment, like parenting many children or lacking much work history, but the city “has to work with people where they’re coming from.”

Jean-Francois is backed up by a 2002 MRDC study, Moving People from Welfare to Work. The study looked at the random assignment of welfare recipients to workforce programs, analyzing 11 programs across the country. Some stressed educating individuals, while others sought to place participants in a job immediately. A single program in Portland, Oregon, mixed these goals: The Portland program provided training and education to some participants, based on their individual needs. Gayle Hamilton, the study’s author, notes that participants were also counseled by staff to “hold out for a good job.” Five years after completing the program, Portlanders earned more, were employed longer, and had received a better education than their counterparts in the two other types of programs.

Whether participants in OTDA’s programs are able to find regular work after completing the programs will have as much to do with the economy as with the programs themselves. But the state hopes the stimulating effects of paying out wages, and the work experience participants will earn, might help participants gain an edge in a more fruitful future. “It’s tough to say what it will be like in 2010,” OTDA spokesman Anthony Farmer said, echoing the prevailing uncertainty about the job market.

– Ben Kelly