US states step up efforts to help jobless

Armed with federal funds, governors have announced new programs ranging from gas vouchers to job training.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
People attend an orientation class at the Manhattan branch of the New York State Department of Labor.

The American states, armed with new federal funds, are rolling up their sleeves to try to help their jobless residents.

Almost every day, governors announce new programs to help the growing ranks of the unemployed find jobs. New York State plans to give the rural unemployed gas cards to make it easier to get to job interviews, while Washington State will hold summer job-training programs for youth for the first time in 10 years. And Wisconsin is hoping to retrain workers, including recently laid-off paper and auto workers, for jobs in growing advanced-manufacturing industries that use robotics or lasers.

In many cases, the new efforts target areas of the economy that are expected to grow. The spending is likely to increase since the new Economic Stimulus Act includes $5.7 billion for workforce programs.

“This would be the largest infusion of dollars in the workforce in many, many years,” says Bob Simoneau, deputy executive director at the National Association of State Workforce Agencies in Washington.

Rising need

The task of retraining workers and providing new jobs grows more urgent every day. On Friday, the Department of Labor reported that the February jobless rate hit 8.1 percent, up from 7.6 percent in January. This is the highest it’s been since 1983, when it reached 8.3 percent. There was a net loss of 651,000 jobs in February and January. December numbers were revised to show a combined additional loss of 161,000 jobs.

“We knew it would get worse before it gets better, and this is worse,” says Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh. “There has been an amazing sharp and steady decline in jobs for the last four months, and there is almost no place to hide.”

Rising joblessness was the main reason Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced $5.89 million in new workforce initiatives last Thursday.

The state’s efforts focus on helping employers and training laid-off workers for jobs in industries such as advanced manufacturing, healthcare, biotechnology, and alternative energy.

“We want to work with employers who have a need for skilled workers,” says Roberta Gassman, secretary of the Department of Workforce Development.

The programs may help the state’s auto workers, Ms. Gassman says. “These workers would be very well positioned to get increased training to get caught up on some of the new processes in manufacturing to move on to the next job.”

Dropouts hit hard

Some of the highest unemployment rates are seen among high school dropouts (26.9 percent in 2007), and some states have introduced initiatives to address this problem.

In western Virginia, state officials last month unveiled “PlugGED In,” a pilot program that will help 19 high school dropouts earn a GED and train for specialties such as Web designer, help center technician, or graphic designer. Participants are guaranteed an interview with contractor Northrop Grumman.

Improving the workforce is critical, says Andrew Stettner of the National Employment Law Project. “Our economic future will depend more than ever on widespread productivity, and the only way to do that is to up-skill the whole workforce,” says Mr. Stettner. “The national goal ought to be to have everyone with a credential beyond high school.”

The new efforts come at a time when the federal government is offering the states more funding if they expand the definition of unemployed workers to include categories such as people involuntarily working part time. However, some Western and Southern states may reject the funds out of concern they will have to raise taxes on businesses after the federal funds expire.

Youth programs

Many state projects focus on youths. The stimulus package gives the states $1.2 billion for youth employment, with an emphasis on programs for this summer. Congress estimates the funding will create 1 million jobs.

“It’s the area that will have the biggest job creation,” says Mr. Simoneau.

Some states are partnering with private companies. Last month, Microsoft Corp. announced a partnership with state officials in Florida, New York, and Washington that allows workers to partake in the company’s “eLearning” programs and online certifications. The program, called “Elevate America,” could train as many 2 million people over three years.

Workforce training experts have high hopes for such programs.

“The concept is very solid,” says Bridget Brown, spokeswoman for the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals. “If a well-known company is offering a credential at low cost or no cost, there’s not much downside there.”

Gas for the jobless

Another obstacle for unemployed people is the cost of traveling to job interviews. To address the issue, New York State announced a program to give gasoline cards to job seekers in 34 of its rural counties. Funding for the $250,000 initiative will come from discretionary funds provided to governors by the Workforce Investment Act, a federal program.

At a career center in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Mike Mario is filling out forms in hopes of participating in the program. Mr. Mario, a father of two from Catskill, N.Y., lost his job as showroom manager three weeks ago when the bio fuels company he worked for couldn’t make payroll. The sales job he’s interviewing for is in Albany, about 45 miles away.

“It’s just paperwork, and you’ve got to be patient and persistent to get it,” says Mario.

“Any amount of money that helps a job seeker is going to be welcome,” says M.A. Wiltse, director of the Columbia and Greene County Workforce Investment Office where Mario fills out the forms.

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