Tracking the Recession: States Push Job Training

Everyone agrees the way out of this recession is jobs. But even as the recession begins to lift and stimulus projects generate jobs, many unemployed workers will have few prospects because their skills won't match new openings.

That's where state workforce agencies come in.

Since 1998, so-called One-Stop employment agencies like the one here in west-central Maryland have acted as all-purpose training and job placement centers for the nation's unemployed. But since December 2007 when this recession began, the more than 2,000 agencies across the country have seen job openings plummet, while nearly twice as many jobless workers - many laid off for the first time - have walked through their doors seeking help.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor , states distribute the money and set policies for local workforce boards made up of business leaders, educational institutions, and economic development and social service agencies.

"If you're unemployed, the future probably looks pretty bleak," employment expert Bob Simoneau of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies told Stateline.org . That's why states are changing their message, particularly in places like Michigan where people aren't going to get their old jobs back. They're helping workers develop skills that will land them jobs in new professions, he said.

Instead of sending discouraged workers out to pound the pavement, states are using existing federal and state resources, boosted by $4 billion in stimulus funds, to help prepare workers for the kind of jobs expected to open up when the economy improves. A new Obama administration program also aims to help low-income workers use federal grants to attend universities and community colleges so they can land better jobs than they had before the recession.

"The idea is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country, so that it's no longer just a time to look for a new job, but is also a time to prepare yourself for a better job," President Obama said May 8 in announcing the new employment initiative .

States and businesses have a strong incentive to get unemployed workers back to work. As of June 2009, states were paying an average of $300 per week in benefits to more than 6 million workers who collected benefits an average of 16 weeks before finding a job. If states could reduce the length of time workers collect benefit checks by just one week, they could save businesses $3 billion in taxes, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.

Still, most states continue to provide benefits for workers who opt for training as long as they are developing skills that match future job openings. In five states - California, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington - workers can get 13 to 26 weeks of additional benefits while training for in-demand occupations, according to the National Employment Law Project .

"We intend to ensure that unemployed people have the skill sets necessary when job-creation comes back around so that employers have ready access to a wide range of prepared workers," said Scott Cheney, acting director for the National Association of Workforce Boards , which represents local agencies. "When the economy is ready, we don't want to have any skill shortages," he said.

After a layoff, the first step for workers is to apply for unemployment insurance benefits - over the phone or online. Next, they're advised to visit their local One-Stop for job placement help, in part to fulfill a requirement that they either actively seek employment or attend state-approved training to continue receiving benefits.

But One-Stops aren't just for people collecting unemployment checks. Anyone can walk into one of these agencies and use their services, such as job databases, computers, telephones and office supplies. They can also attend classes or seek counseling on resume writing, interviewing, and career strategies. Teens, the elderly and people with disabilities can tap into specialized work programs.

For eligible low-income workers, the agencies go further, offering free training and certification programs provided by local community colleges and private-sector training companies. Under the administration's latest initiative, the agencies are also charged with helping workers apply for federal Pell grants to attend universities and community colleges.

Here in Frederick, where a once-thriving construction industry has nearly ground to a halt, the local employment office, Frederick County Workforce Services , is using stimulus money to develop new training programs that many expect will continue well beyond October 2010 when the stimulus funding ends.

Since local construction jobs are expected to return as the economy recovers, unemployed workers are being offered classes in soft skills, such as time management and personal relations in the workplace.

"We talked to the owners of construction companies and they told us they can train people to use a hammer and a wrench, but they can't find enough workers who show up on time and keep their personal problems out of the workplace," said director Laurie Holden.

Holden said her agency is also using stimulus money for new classes in geriatric nursing and apprenticeship programs at local nursing facilities where unskilled workers can learn on the job. Once they complete training, the workers will be almost assured of employment, because like most of the country, Frederick County suffers from a severe shortage of health care workers.

Frederick County Workforce Services is conveniently located in an office park behind one of the area's biggest shopping malls and it sees a steady stream of traffic even in good economic times. But in sparsely populated regions of the state, such central locations often do not exist.

To serve the needs of this kind of community, workforce director Dan McDermott in Maryland's rural Chesapeake Bay region brings services directly to those who need it. Like other workforce agencies in far-flung regions of the country, the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board created a mobile office by outfitting a recreational vehicle as a roving One-Stop.

"We make regular stops at churches, family support centers and jails, and when a plant is conducting layoffs, we pull our big blue bus right up front," McDermott said. "We also do positives. When a company is hiring, we park next to the building and accept applications and schedule interviews," he said.

For now, the Upper Shore employment agency is offering classes in health care and trucking and plans to use stimulus money to fund a joint venture with a commercial organization to provide technical training in heating and cooling systems. To better serve the growing number of people seeking its help, the agency has contracted with a professional job-search firm rather than hiring full-time personnel that would have to be let go when stimulus funding runs out, McDermott said.

In every workforce agency, a big part of the job is bolstering people's spirits. "It's an emotionally draining job," Holden said. "The staff is struggling and many are taking it home with them. But when we're successful, it's the best feeling in the world."

McDermott agreed. "When you lose a job, the model we keep in mind is death and dying. People experience shock first, then denial and anger, and finally acceptance. It's hard for staff and hard for the people."

For the nation's millions of unemployed workers, finding a local workforce agency can be challenging - some, but not all, are called One-Stops. In Maryland, the statewide workforce agency is dubbed Division of Workforce Development. On the Web, Frederick County's local office is called Frederick County Workforce Services, ads and Web sites use the logo FrederickWorks and the sign on the door says Business and Employment Center.

Florida goes by Agency for Workforce Innovation ; Texas has a Web site labeled Work in Texas , Wisconsin offers an online Job Center to help job-seekers find local workforce agencies and California's Employment Development Department touts its CalJobs network.

The panoply of state and local names causes confusion, but Simoneau says the federal government has never tried to get states to standardize their titles. According to McDermott, "Coming up with a name is a way to get ownership. We work with all of our partners in the community to create a unique brand. It's a creative process that brings everyone together."

For a complete listing of One-Stops across the country, the U.S. Department of Labor offers a locator map .