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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pennsylvania Races Clock to find 30,000 Jobs

Philadelphia Inquirer

At Keepsake Carpets in North Philadelphia, technician Robert Ringgold binds mats. His boss wants to hire a sales force through Way to Work, which could lead to permanent jobs for them.

As enticements go, bottled water and oatmeal raisin cookies, even very good ones, don't seem too alluring. But Patrick Bokovitz, the executive director of the Chester County Workforce Investment Board, had something better than refreshments to offer 35 local employers crammed into a meeting room Thursday outside West Chester:

Expand your workforce now, Bokovitz told them, and the federal government will pick up most of the tab.

Starting next week, Pennsylvania will pump $78 million of federal stimulus funding, plus an additional $19.5 million of its own money, into Way to Work, a statewide subsidized-job program.

The federal money, funneled through the state's Department of Public Welfare, will underwrite wages of up to $13 an hour for adults and minimum wage for youths.

The goal is to employ 20,000.

Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen, because the program requires a tight turnaround.

The money goes away Sept. 30, and Pennsylvania is already late in implementing a program that some other states, including Delaware, started a year ago.

That means Pennsylvania has to recruit employers for all of them, answer many complicated questions about who is eligible for the jobs, and tackle some thorny issues, such as whether employers who had planned to hire and advertised an opening can now use the money to finance that same position.

Then, the job-seeker needs to get on the job and get in some weeks of paid work before the program expires Sept. 30 and the government stops paying the bill.

The hope is that this will encourage companies on the cusp of hiring to take the plunge, expecting that, as the economy improves, many of the funded jobs will become permanent.

Anthony Hudgins, for example, would like to use the funds to staff a sales force to sell personalized rugs manufactured by his company, Keepsake Carpets, in North Philadelphia. If the sales force succeeds, it will lead to permanent work for the employees, he said, and require him to hire more manufacturing help.

That, in turn, will help to relieve unemployment in Pennsylvania, which stands at 9.4 percent, with 582,000 out of work.

"In Pennsylvania, 30,000 have already burned through their unemployment benefits," said Sharon Dietrich, an employment lawyer with Community Legal Services Inc., of Philadelphia, and a major advocate for the program.

"Right now, this is the best answer we can give them," she said. "It's critically important that we develop as many opportunities as possible for desperate people to feed their families.

"My assessment is, it is going as well as it can be given how much had to be done and how quickly," she said, acknowledging that the program was complicated and logistically challenging.

Funding comes from Pennsylvania's share of $5 billion in stimulus money funneled through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the nation's main welfare program.

Of the $5 billion - which, if unused, goes away - Pennsylvania was eligible for $359.8 million. So far, it has received federal approval for plans to spend $46.1 million and is awaiting approval for $59.7 million more. The money can also be used for other types of assistance.

By contrast, Delaware has already been approved to spend its entire allocation of $8.4 million. New Jersey has approvals for $154.2 million of its $202 million share.

In Pennsylvania, "the biggest challenge is to develop as many work sites so people can get work," Dietrich said. "That is our focus right now."

Philadelphia has the biggest load, seeking to provide subsidized jobs for 5,000 teenagers, 3,500 adults in one program, plus an additional 1,500 through a related welfare-to-work program.

"We know we have a ticking clock through Sept. 30," said Jennie Sparandara, the city's director of human capital investments. "We're going to do everything in our power to get employers engaged."

One tactic the city plans is to use staffing agencies.

"We haven't selected the firms yet," said Andrew Rachlin, deputy chief of staff for the city's commerce department. "Whoever we partner with has to have the capacity to move quickly to identify large numbers of job slots" through their existing connections with area employers.

The city itself plans to hire 500, with the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board and the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp. pledged to find other slots.

Strictly by coincidence, the Bucks County Workforce Investment Board and Bucks County CareerLinks sponsored a job fair Wednesday in their Bristol office.

"This couldn't have happened at a more opportune time," said CareerLinks director Norman Brewer, who buttonholed the 31 employers in his lair for four hours.

SEPTA recruiter Jim Barnshaw didn't need to be sold. "I want it," he said. He sees it as subsidized training, especially for SEPTA's new fleet.

Frank Carey, executive director of the Delaware County Workforce Investment Board, promises coffee and doughnuts for the 200 county employers he has invited to a workshop next week at the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce building in Media.

Like Bokovitz, Carey can finance 65 jobs for adults. In Montgomery County, Gerald Birkelbach is scrambling to find good jobs for 30 people.

"We have some well-meaning organizations who would want to take somebody on, but they need to have meaningful work for months, not just for two weeks," said Birkelbach, executive director of the Montgomery County's Workforce Investment Board.

Elizabeth Walsh, who heads Bucks County's Workforce Investment Board, said employers might worry that a welfare-funded program would provide only untrained and inexperienced workers.

Not true. "Let me tell you, honey, with this economy, the face of [welfare] has changed, and there are skilled people out there," she said.

There are some tricky issues. Employers that have laid off staff in the last six months cannot use subsidized workers to refill those jobs.

Even among workforce executives, there seems to be some confusion about whether these workers can be used to fill open positions. The state advises that "local workforce investment areas must be vigilant to ensure that . . . funds are not simply subsidizing activity that would have occurred in the absence of the subsidy."

Nor is the program free. "The reimbursement is for gross wages only," Walsh explained. Employers need to pick up federal and state taxes and provide supervision - costs that could add 15 percent to 25 percent per hire.

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