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Stimulus money tests local workforce training system

6 April 2009 No Comment

By Will Jason

For nearly 10 years, federally funded career centers in the East Bay have offered little in the way of job training. Last year, as the region lost 40,000 jobs, local career centers offered training to just 449 adults.

That is because about two thirds of the federal money pays to run the career centers, which also offer more basic services such as résumé workshops, English classes and free computer access to search for jobs. And when jobs were plentiful, career centers saw little need to increase more intensive training because most workers could find positions without it.

Now, heavy job losses and the Obama administration’s ambitious economic recovery program have prompted a dramatic change of course for federal workforce programs. The economic stimulus package signed by President Obama in February contains nearly $4 billion—more than last year’s entire budget—for employment and training services, at least $488 million of which is going to California. Local governments will be able to tap those funds later this month, and the Department of Labor wants them to use much of it for training.

But the money will flow to a system with little experience training large groups of workers. In fact, many local career centers say they have actually discouraged training  by requiring workers to wade through forms, testing, counseling and other requirements.

“Training is really the last resort,” said Monica Castrillo, a career counselor at the Richmond Works One-Stop Career Center in Richmond.

Richmond Works is one of 13 career centers in the East Bay, and 1,700 nationwide, that use federal funds to serve the unemployed. Funded under the 10-year-old Workforce Investment Act, the centers are overseen by workforce investment boards, which are appointed by cities and counties, and include representatives from business, labor and other groups. In the East Bay, there are boards representing Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and the cities of Richmond and Oakland. Federal money flows to the boards using formulas based on unemployment rates and other factors.

Together, the four East Bay boards expect to receive more than $16 million from the federal stimulus. That money will be welcomed by the career centers, which are being flooded with newly unemployed workers. Staff at Richmond Works say the center is serving more than 4,000 people per month, double the number they served last year.

Inside Richmond Works on a recent Thursday afternoon, about 20 job seekers were scanning the public computers for job listings. Alex Medrano, 46, of Richmond, looked over his resume. Two years ago, Medrano paid to attend the ITT Technical Institute to learn construction management, but that industry slumped before he could find a job.

“I chose the wrong class,” Medrano said.

Medrano knows he may have to “upgrade” his skills, but he is not sure whether he will look for more training. If he is eligible Medrano could receive a voucher for up to $3,500 for training at one of hundreds of schools. But first, he’ll have to attend an orientation and a workshop on resume writing, and do a preliminary job search. He’ll also have to pass a basic skills test showing a ninth grade education.

Medrano will also have to meet with a career counselor like Castrillo, who helps match workers with open jobs, and approves some of them for training. When Castrillo approves training, the government evaluates her based on whether or not the trainee gets hired.  That makes Castrillo cautious to approve only the most motivated workers for training.

“We have to make a judgment about whether they are do-ers,” Castrillo said. “It all boils down to numbers.”

But with a new mandate to train more workers, career centers are looking for ways to approve clients more quickly. The stimulus legislation allows centers to hire community colleges and others to train groups of workers, and the Department of Labor says it wants them to sign contracts with schools soon.

“These contracts are intended to provide a means of quickly ramping up much-needed training capacity,” Deputy Assistant Labor Secretary Douglas Small said in a March 18 letter to state workforce agencies.

Local workforce boards are talking to the Peralta and Chabot-Las Positas community college districts about potential training contracts, but it is still not clear what types of training colleges would provide. Typically, boards use economic data to target training toward growing industries, but they are scrambling to figure out where to focus when almost every sector of the local economy is losing jobs. Unemployment reached 9.6 percent in the East Bay in February, up 88 percent from the same month last year. In the past year, California as a whole lost more than 600,000 jobs.

“Everything has changed,” said Ed Kawahara, the top consultant for the California Economic Strategy Panel, a state commission that guides workforce policies.  “We’re in dire straits.”

Even when jobs were growing, training was scattered across dozens of fields ranging from truck driving to medical billing. Last year, the 449 trainees in the East Bay enrolled in more than 160 different programs. That makes it difficult to concentrate training resources on specific types of jobs, said Linda Chandler, strategic planner for the Contra Costa Workforce Investment Board.

“We haven’t typically had that many people at one time needing one kind of training,” Chandler said.

Once they receive the money later this month, the workforce investment boards say they will put it to work within months. That could mean starting with general programs like English and computer classes until they decide which industries to target, said Virginia Hamilton, spokeswoman for the California Workforce Association, which represents all of California’s 49 workforce boards.

“At the very least we can start investing in the basic skills of our workers,” Hamilton said. “We can do that right away before we know where the jobs are going.”

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