Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Working Together to Get People to Work

One of the biggest challenges to the effective functioning of the District of Columbia’s workforce development system is that it really isn’t a system at all.

Let me explain.

Workforce development activities in the District are funded by no fewer than eight different federal and local funding streams. Each one of these funding streams comes with its own set of goals – and its own set of restrictions.

For example, the District’s One-Stops are funded with federal money available under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).[1] To utilize that funding, the District – through the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) – has to agree to achieve certain performance measures in a given year. These performance measures include placing a certain percentage of adults in employment, ensuring a certain percentage of those placed stay in those jobs for at least six months, and ensuring those placed earn wages above a certain level. These performance measures are subject to approval by the US Department of Labor.

The DC Jobs Council is very supportive of performance measures in principle. We believe that anyone receiving taxpayers’ money should be accountable for how it is used.

The problem is that, in order to achieve the negotiated performance standards, the One-Stops assist only the clients most likely to succeed – a practice called “creaming.” This approach appears perfectly rational: when you have limited resources, and set goals, you are going to deploy those resources in a manner that ensures you meet your goals.

But while it may appear rational, it may not be in the best interests of those District residents most in need of assistance. Tens of thousands of the District’s unemployed residents need assistance with job searches, job training, and overcoming barriers. WIA funding only helps to meet some of those needs.

But is there money somewhere to meet the other critical needs of those facing the highest barriers?

One of those barriers is literacy – or, more accurately, the lack thereof, a barrier faced by about one-third of our neighbors. Federal money for that purpose comes largely through Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, and the funding is distributed in the District via the Office of the State Superintended of Education’s Office of Adult and Family Education.

Another barrier faced by unemployed single parents is the lack of the resources to pay for basic needs while looking for a job or pursuing training. In some cases, the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) Employment Program can provide access to training for those parents who receive TANF, along with the cash assistance available to custodial parents through TANF. TANF is distributed to the District via the DC Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Income Maintenance Administration (IMA).

There are others, but you get the point. The District has access to a lot of sources of funding to facilitate workforce development, each with its own rules and regulations – and each coming through its own silo.

The DC Jobs Council has long advocated for some kind of mechanism within the District government to, at the very least, maintain a bird’s eye view of all of the activities in all of the workforce development silos. Even better would be an individual – or a group – who could actually have an impact on how the programs in these silos interact and – potentially – cooperate.

That’s why we were thrilled when Councilmember Michael A. Brown, chairman of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, convened a workgroup to discuss just how to facilitate this kind of cooperation – to start the work necessary to break down the silos. Brown and his staff invited representatives from advocacy organizations, think tanks, philanthropy, and service providers to meet and talk candidly about the silos.

Brown and his staff also invited representatives from the District agencies whose work has an impact on workforce development – DOES, DHS IMA, and OSSE’s Office of Adult and Family Education. But not one agency representative showed up. One agency representative had intended to join the meeting, but was told at the last minute she should not attend. One agency staffer simply refused, while another did not respond to the invitation. (However, to give credit where it is due, a representative from the Community College of the District of Columbia did attend.)

The workgroup will meet again in the near future. It is our understanding that agency representatives will be invited again. We hope they will attend.

Working together is the only way to ensure we can get every District resident back to work.

[1] By statute, the District’s Workforce Investment Council (WIC) is responsible for overseeing how DC spends its WIA funding. However, the DC WIC is not designed to oversee or coordinate programs funded by other sources. We will address the WIC in more detail in a future blog post.

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