TOPICS > Economy

Georgia Works Jobs Training Program: a Peach or the Pits?

October 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
One provision of President Obama's jobs bill that has some bipartisan support is modeled after a program in Georgia that allows employers to try out workers for eight weeks on a volunteer basis while the person receives unemployment benefits and training. Paul Solman explores Georgia Works' pros and cons, plus its scalability.

GWEN IFILL: Now, a state jobs program attracting national attention.

As we heard earlier, the president’s jobs bill was blocked in the Senate, and Democrats are hoping to pass individual parts of the legislation instead. One provision with bipartisan support is modeled on a job training program in Georgia.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman examines how that program is working as part of his regular reporting Making Sense of financial news.

MAN: When I lost my job, it destroyed me. It absolutely destroyed me.

PAUL SOLMAN: A Georgia Department of Labor instructor orienting the newly jobless in metro Atlanta. It’s part group therapy, part info session about finding work, including one program that’s been in the news of late.

MAN: Georgia Works, everyone, Georgia Works — how many people have ever heard of Georgia Works before?

PAUL SOLMAN: If you’re raising your hands at home, maybe it’s because the program got prime-time attention in President Obama’s jobs speech last month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This jobs plan builds on a program in Georgia that several Republican leaders have highlighted, where people who collect unemployment insurance participate in temporary work as a way to build their skills while they look for a permanent job.

PAUL SOLMAN: The state-sponsored program matches job seekers with firms looking to hire and willing to promise training. You work as many as 24 hours a week for up to eight weeks and are paid by unemployment insurance, not the company.

The state gives you a $240 stipend for expenses. Some 30,000 of Georgia’s half-a-million unemployed have taken part so far. Georgia Works has gotten bipartisan support in Washington, but it was a Democrat, former Georgia Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond, who started the program in 2003. He left in 2010, proud of what he had done.

MICHAEL THURMOND, former Georgia labor commissioner: While I was there, Georgia Works was our primary strategy of dealing with unemployment, and it paid huge dividends. It worked for 60 percent of those men and women, who found jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: Six in 10 had found a job somewhere within 90 days. But, of course, the layoffs have just kept on coming, thanks to the great recession.

LIS CAP, graphic designer: It was difficult, kind of shocking.

PAUL SOLMAN: Graphic designer Lis Cap lost her job earlier this year, and showed up at her orientation session at the local Labor Department.

LIS CAP: I joked I was going to unemployment class.

PAUL SOLMAN: But she found out about Georgia Works.

Soon after, she ran into Sosh Howell, who, from his Atlanta condo, operates AppedOn, a mobile application startup. He agreed to teach her how to make apps, an internship subsidized by unemployment.

LIS CAP: Knowing that you’re still receiving the unemployment check can bring great peace of mind to someone who wants to try something new. Say you took a job in a new field and it didn’t work out. Then you may not be eligible for unemployment anymore.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sosh Howell say, so far, Georgia Works is working.

SOSH HOWELL, AppedOn: It’s a small company. We can’t afford to train someone from scratch. Georgia Works makes training someone in this new field affordable.

PAUL SOLMAN: Does it trouble you at all that you’re getting free labor?

SOSH HOWELL: There are costs for us. There is my time, my team’s time. So, when we are training her, it is not something that is free for us.

PAUL SOLMAN: The program ends after eight weeks, at which point Lis Cap hopes to get hired full-time. Howell is noncommittal, but impressed.

SOSH HOWELL: Eight weeks is not enough to train someone for a new profession. It is enough for us to get to know Lis and see what other skills and qualities she has outside of the technical requirements.

JACQUELYN WILLIS-WALKER, Georgia State University: You deal with samples, blood, hair, urine, whatever, all day long in and out.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jacquelyn Willis-Walker worked 27 years as a medical tech and forensic pathologist. After her layoff in 2008, she too heard of Georgia Works.

JACQUELYN WILLIS-WALKER: When I thought about it, I said, you know, I’m not that proficient at Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, so I’m kind of stuck. So why do that to myself? I said here’s an opportunity to learn some more skills that I can take anywhere.

PAUL SOLMAN: After completing the program at Georgia State University, Willis-Walker was hired full time at the school’s educational opportunity center.

JACQUELYN WILLIS-WALKER: With our Georgia Works program, what it is, you have to be right now currently unemployed.

PAUL SOLMAN: She’s now the university’s point person for Georgia Works. Of 60 program participants, she says, 30 have been hired.

JACQUELYN WILLIS-WALKER: We do have a lot of administrative positions. We have parking attendants. We have lab assistants’ positions, things that people may have from somewhere else that won’t require a lot of retraining, but they will have to know the system at Georgia State or they will have to know the college system.

PAUL SOLMAN: How much do they pay?

JACQUELYN WILLIS-WALKER: If you’re hired in administrative, they can range anywhere from $12,000, $15,000, based on your experience. If you have an extensive background, there are ranges, maybe $30,000, $40,000. There’s a wider range.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thirty thousand dollars to $40,000 a year.

To liberal economist Eileen Appelbaum, that’s just the problem: Most Georgia Works jobs teach you little, pay you less.

EILEEN APPELBAUM, Center for Economic and Policy Research: When we look at the 70 percent of jobs into which people were placed, we can see that these are jobs that typically are the kind of low-wage jobs that low-wage temp agencies help employers fill without any kind of training whatsoever.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hired two years ago after a Georgia Works tryout, Doreen Kincaid (ph) is an admin staffer at Georgia State. Previous job? Project manager at a large bank.

WOMAN: I was making probably about $74,000, $75,000. I’m making $32,000 now, less than half of what I was accustomed to making. But my main point was here was to get back in the work force. I wanted to work.

MARK BUTLER, Georgia labor commissioner: Is it a marquee program for Georgia Department of Labor? No, it’s not.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s fair to say current state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler is not touting the program.

MARK BUTLER: It seems to have a lot more success for people in clerical jobs, but, I mean, you start getting some more technical aspects of it, like a lot of the computer jobs, you’re talking training that’s going to take realistically, at a minimum, a six-month period, more likely anywhere from 12 to 18 months. And so you really cannot fit that into an eight-week program.

I think it works for some people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Butler’s main gripe: a 2010 expansion of the program before he took over to include all jobless Georgians, not just those on unemployment insurance. The stipend was also increased to $600. Enrollment soared sixfold, to over 18,000, but Butler scaled back the program dramatically. Today, just 21 people are taking part.

MARK BUTLER: The spending had gotten out of control. And, basically, a program that had been budgeted for one year for $6 million spent it in less than six months and wasn’t sustainable. The results had started to slide. We weren’t seeing as much positive results. Record-keeping was spotty, at best.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, while his predecessor claimed over half of participants got jobs, Butler says, since 2003, only 18 percent have been hired by the companies that trained them.

In 2010, the number was down to 10 percent, he says. Worse still, many firms didn’t train people at all. Consider Ryan Savage. After 12 years working in I.T. at one company, he was cut loose early last year.

RYAN SAVAGE, fired from I.T. company: My heart just sunk. And I was so upset that I was immediately thinking about family, my kids, like, how am I going to pay for the house and our bills?

PAUL SOLMAN: Savage finally found a firm willing to link up with Georgia Works, but it didn’t pan out.

RYAN SAVAGE: Not once did I ever see a hint of training. I think the company got to a point where they were taking advantage of the free labor.

EILEEN APPELBAUM: They take them for free, and then they have no obligation at the end to hire them or to give them any skills.

PAUL SOLMAN: Economist Appelbaum says companies can easily take advantage of program participants.

EILEEN APPELBAUM: If they need a warm body for a couple of weeks somewhere, then they can do it this way.

PAUL SOLMAN: On the last day of his Georgia Works internship, Savage was told the company no longer planned to fill the position.

RYAN SAVAGE: I felt like I had wasted my time. I could have spent a lot of those weeks looking for work, getting out there on the road, job hunting.

PAUL SOLMAN: But given a state unemployment rate that’s doubled since the program’s inception, Savage thinks Georgia Works is worth the effort, if only for getting a foot in the door.

Mike Thurmond agrees.

MICHAEL THURMOND: It restores an individual. It gives them a chance to be a part of something positive again. And, you know, and it’s not perfect. It’s not a panacea, but it works. Why would anyone be opposed to a person wanting to volunteer to do something that might increase their chances of getting a job? How could anyone be against that?

PAUL SOLMAN: Whether or not it’s adopted on a larger scale, Georgia Works has already been copied in several states trying to increase the odds that their jobless will find work.