By July 1, the way Mississippi helps workers find good jobs and assists employers with finding good workers will change with the implementation of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. State business leaders will be watching to see how well it melds with the already established and highly successful state-funded program.
“It will not conflict with the state plan, which will continue to operate the same way it does now,” said George Walker, founder of Delta Wire in Clarksdale, chairman of the state community college board and co-chairman of the state workforce development council.
“The programs will complement each other perfectly. There’s a value to having a state program very, very close to home already in place that has proven itself to be very successful. We certainly don’t want to diminish a successful program,” Walker said.
Dr. Olon Ray, executive director of Mississippi State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said there was a time when he thought one system would be utilized to deliver job-training programs.
“But we lost that sometime back,” Ray said. “What I think we’ll see happen now is a major division of responsibilities. Congress had an opportunity to structure a good sense, straightforward program and chose not to do that. Instead, Congress created a very convoluted, contorted set of guidelines that, within themselves, created a major part of the problem.”
In 1994, Mississippi passed the Workforce Development Act, which established One-Stop Career Centers on community college campuses and is funded by the Legislature. A statewide workforce council, comprised primarily of business leaders from the 15 community college districts, governs the centers.
In 1998, Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act, which provided federal funds for states to set up county career centers. According to federal legislation, the program is to be governed by a group designated by the state. Several people in the business community have raised eyebrows about the state’s designated hitter: county supervisors.
“The state plan, which was developed following the federal law, used the term ‘chief elected official’ and that has been determined to be county supervisors,” said Dr. Clyde Muse, president of Hinds Community College.
The primary difference between the state-funded and federally-funded boards is that the latter includes county supervisors and planning and development districts, Walker said.
“The federal program, which perhaps has a slightly different orientation, will supplement the state plan,” he said. “It will be a partnership that will be very beneficial. It’s important they have slightly different missions and different procedures.”
The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 has its roots in the war on poverty days of the 1960s, said Jean Denson, Ph.D., director of the employment training division of the Mississippi Department of Community and Economic Development.
“During those years, Congress funded programs at the federal level,” she said. “And the federal level contracted directly with local, community based organizations to deliver the services. Through the years, there’s been an evolution so that federal legislation involves both the state and local units of government.”
The new law, which replaces the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), creates one-stop centers around the state where customers will have information about and access to a variety of job training, education and employment services.
“The JTPA was not integrated with all of the other required federal programs that the WIA will require,” said Denson. “The WIA requires 14 different federal programs to come together, enter into an agreement and deliver their services together at the street level. To an employer, those 14 programs appear as one. That means they do not have to know the litany of different federal programs. They only know they can get all of these services at the one-stop center.”
The programs will provide:
• Assessment of skill and aptitude levels.
• Information on employment-related services, including local education and training service provider lists.
• Assistance with filing unemployment insurance claims and the evaluation of eligibility for job training and education programs or student financial aid.
• Help with job search, placement and career counseling.
• Access to labor market information, which identifies job vacancies, in-demand job skills, and local, regional and national employment trends.
• Information about childcare assistance, eligibility and transportation.
• Training vouchers to help pay for tuition, books and supplies.
“Essentially, we are required to set up one-stop centers, in which individuals will be able to apply for services that were funded under the JTPA, as well as vocational rehabilitation, unemployment insurance, veterans services and quite an array of federally funded employment and training services,” Denson said. “The federal legislation is extremely complex and has required cooperation of various agencies, implementation of sophisticated technology and training about the program itself.”
The construction industry, with a drastic need for workers, from low-skilled, entry-level to building supervisors, is one of many industries that can benefit from one-stop centers, Denson said.
“There are so many field occupations where individuals can make a much higher salary than those who come out of a four-year university program,” Denson said. “This is the type of information we want to market so individuals really know information about careers and can make wise decisions about what to pursue for additional training.”
The WIA tends to favor urban areas in delivery of service and decision-making, Denson said.
“We have six workforce areas in Mississippi, with one area comprised of 27 counties,” she said. “One supervisor from each of the 27 counties serves on a board that makes decisions, so you can imagine the administrative difficulty of getting a forum for a meeting and then reaching the agreement on how the funds are to be expended. Administratively, it is very complex because of the different decision-makers required.”
The federally-funded program should provide easier access to job seekers and employers.
“For the first time since the war-on-poverty days, the funds can be used for universal service,” said Denson. “That means we’re not limited to identifying individuals who meet certain criteria. This information will be available to anyone, regardless of their income, education or employment.”
Community colleges are considered a critical partner in the implementation of the WIA, Denson insisted.
“The challenge is to meet the federal requirement without imposing that federal bureaucracy on our very flexible and attractive state system,” she said.
Steps would be taken to insure the state-funded program does not become “burdened and impaired” by federal regulations, Ray said.
“We have a clean, direct delivery system that avoids some of the pitfalls of federal legislation,” he said.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said employers and job seekers alike would greatly benefit from the new one-stop center system.
“This is one of the vehicles we can use to take our great state to the next level,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.