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Workforce training legislation speeding toward implementation

Lickety-split

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour`s workforce training legislative proposal to centralize workforce training programs in hopes of maximizing millions of federal dollars and raising the skill level of Mississippi`s workers has clipped through the Senate at a rapid pace unlike any legislation Mississippians can recall since gaming was legalized at lightening speed in 1992.

“Our goal is to create an aligned, demand-driven public workforce training system that sustains, develops and grows new jobs for Mississippi workers,” said Barbour. “We also want to provide employers an available, consistent and skilled workforce, and offer a clear path to individuals seeking their first job or a better job.”

On Feb. 18, one week after Barbour introduced landmark workforce development legislation, the Senate voted 42 to 5 to overhaul the current system to ensure that Mississippi workers were as highly-trained as possible to help the state lure more and better-paying jobs. Senate Bill 2539, introduced by Senate President Pro-Tempore Travis Little (R-Corinth), with 33 co-authors, was referred to the House Appropriations committee on Feb. 20. Even though the House may be tougher to crack – House Bill 973, introduced by Rep. Herb Frierson (R-Poplarville), with two co-authors, passed out of appropriations committee on Feb. 19 – wheels are already in motion to implement sweeping reforms to the state`s workforce training programs.

“Over the years, in an effort to improve economic development in Mississippi, our state has formulated industry incentives, repackaged industry recruitment efforts and increased funding from kindergarten to college,” said Barbour. “However, one area that needs serious attention, and the area that will begin this administration`s economic development legislative efforts, is the area of workforce development. Nothing would do more to help Mississippi create better jobs than developing a workforce that is highly respected in the business world – a true workforce to be reckoned with.”

In 1994, Mississippi passed legislation establishing career centers on community college campuses, which the Legislature funds. 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 (WIA), which provided federal funds for states to set up county career centers. According to federal legislation, a state-designated group governs the program.

Under Barbour`s plan, the Mississippi Comprehensive Workforce Training

and Education Consolidation Act of 2004 merges the State Workforce Development Council, which oversees state workforce dollars, with the State Workforce Investment Board, which oversees federal workforce dollars. The governor, lieutenant governor and house speaker would appoint the new State Workforce Investment Board and coordinate both state and federal workforce dollars.

“The legislation gives more of the franchise in workforce development and training to community colleges, which have a proven record of performance in workforce training,” said Barbour. “Federal workforce dollars in Mississippi currently go to one of six workforce-training areas in the state. The legislation merges these into four, to be run by respective workforce training boards, and creates incentives for the boards to contract workforce training with community and junior colleges. Local workforce development councils perform the same function as the workforce training boards with state training dollars. The councils will continue to work with the community colleges under this act.”

Barbour`s legislation also streamlines workforce development. The programs of the Mississippi Employment Security Commission (MESC) would be transferred to the executive branch of government, allowing for greater coordination and utilization of funds for workforce training and development programs. Annual savings are estimated at $2.1 million. A governor-appointed director would head the new Department of Employment Security and the three current commissioner positions now controlling the commission would be eliminated. The Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council would also be eliminated, moving the authorization of unemployment insurance rates under the control of the director. The various boards that review and oversee unemployment claims and benefits would remain intact.

“Consolidating workforce-training activities within the state will result in a more efficient and cost-effective method for delivery of workforce-training activities and education while eliminating duplicate activities,” said Barbour.

Under the current system, turf wars have sometimes resulted in a lack of cooperation among the different agencies involved in workforce training. The new bill specifically states in a the-buck-stops-here approach that “the governor, as the CEO of the state, shall have complete authority to enforce cooperation among all entities within the state that utilize federal or state funding for the conduct of workforce training activities.”

Some business leaders have expressed concern about a concentration of power over workforce training dollars in the hands of a sitting governor, but the county supervisors in their districts appoint the local workforce investment board members. Because supervisors are responsible for the funding, the safeguard provides a check against excessive control by the governor`s office.

Also as part of the governor`s plan, legislation will be introduced encouraging private enterprise job training. The legislation triples and reforms the amount of the job training tax credit. A 50% income tax credit, or up to $2,500 per employee, would be provided to employers who sponsor basic skills training or retraining that improves job performance and is approved by a community or junior college.

John Rounsaville, the governor`s policy advisor, said he doesn`t yet have projections about how much the increased tax credits for private business to train its employees will cost the state in tax revenues.

“The existing tax credit is for very basic skills, like reading,” he said. “We’re increasing the eligibility for that to match higher skill levels like forklift operators or for computer training, as long as it`s approved by the community college that will be doing the training.”

In the last four years, only four employers have actually used the state tax credit, which Rounsaville called “a travesty.”

“We have a complex web of workforce development programs,” said Barbour. “More than 10 state agencies as well as multiple boards and councils at the state and local levels have some kind of workforce development function. You can imagine, it`s not easy to coordinate all this and make it user-friendly. The result is that many employers and workers do not utilize these programs. Mississippi is not maximizing our workforce training investment or the federal dollars allocated to us.”

Currently, the state is divided into six workforce training areas which control 60 workforce training centers: WIN Job Centers, or One-Stop Centers.

“These training areas utilize federal workforce dollars to conduct training activities,” said Barbour. “Two of the six areas, Hinds County and the Gulf Coast, will be merged into the remaining four areas to streamline administration and training and better align the workforce areas with the Planning and Development Districts. Four respective local workforce investment boards will run the four workforce training areas. The workforce training boards, with the local Planning and Development Districts acting as fiscal agents, will have incentives to contract the operation of the ‘One-Stop’ Centers with community and junior colleges. Therefore, the community and junior colleges will have a stronger role in actually providing the training. They have a proven record of performance and achievement in this area.”

Concerns were expressed at the local level of the Hinds County and Gulf

Coast workforce areas about merging into the sister workforce areas, which might spur the closing o
f
“One-Stop” Centers, said Rounsaville, who emphasized that none of the centers were scheduled to be closed.

“Especially in the case of Hinds County, where people are crossing county lines in both directions to work, we feel the people in the area will be better served as one district,” he said. “The local investment boards will be looking at a broader picture for the needs of the area.”

Barbour said the changes would not cost the state new money and that no paying jobs would be lost.

“There were concerns by some of the employee unions that we would end up closing local employment security offices or that people would lose their jobs by bringing the MESC under the executive branch,” said Rounsaville. “That`s absolutely false. There`s nothing in the bill that calls for that. While we want to streamline as much as possible, there still must be those entities in place to keep the system operating.”

The Mississippi Manufacturers Association, the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC), the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, the Mississippi Municipal League, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the State Board of Community and Junior Colleges and the Planning and Development Districts support the bill.

“Improving the workplace skills of Mississippians is a priority issue with business leaders in every section of the state, for not only today`s jobs, but those of tomorrow,” said MEC president Blake Wilson. “In my five years as president of the Mississippi Economic Council, the issue has, along with improving education, topped every formal and informal survey of our members. I have often described the job training delivery system in Mississippi as a `strip mall’ of storefronts that is confusing, complicated and a hurdle to both employer and employee. Gov. Barbour`s recommendations to streamline the training delivery system is a major advance, one at which the Legislature will seriously consider as Mississippi meets the challenges of a global and ever-changing marketplace.”

Part II: the redesign

The complex flow chart of the current Mississippi workforce training system features 18 steps. The new flow chart has half that number, and calls for 5% of the state`s allocation to be earmarked for administration costs and 10% of the state`s allocation for other programs, with the state responsible for monitoring, reporting, providing technical assistance and incentives and demonstration programs.

“Because we’ve presently got two streams of dollars, and the right hand doesn`t know what the left hand is doing, we want to combine the State Workforce Investment Board with the Mississippi Workforce Development Advisory Council into the State Workforce Investment Board,” said Rounsaville.

Members of the board for the non-paid positions would include:

• The executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors;

• One elected county supervisor;

• One representative of labor unions, nominated by the organization;

• One representative of a youth activities organization, such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club;

• One representative from each of the four workforce areas of the state, nominated by the community colleges in each respective workforce area;

• The executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority;

• Seventeen representatives from the business and industrial community, nominated by business and industry organizations that may include representatives from various Planning and Development Districts;

• The state superintendent of education;

• The executive director of the State Department of Rehabilitative Services;

• One representative from the Planning and Development Districts, appointed by the governor;

• The executive director of the State Board of Community and Junior Colleges;

• The executive director of the newly created Department of Employment Security;

• The executive director of the Department of Human Services; and

• Five non-voting members, including the governor and four legislators, two from each body appointed by the lieutenant governor and house speaker.

The governor will designate a chairman from among the voting board members to serve concurrently with his term.

“Right now, between the two statewide boards, there are about 75 or 80 members,” said Rounsaville. “This will bring it down to less than half that with the new board.”

With fewer decision points, answers should be available much sooner, said Jim Lott, director of workforce training for the Mississippi Development Authority.

“With fewer layers, there`s no excuse, at least with the federal money, not to have an answer on a training request within just a few days,” he said.

Last year, state funds for workforce training were $17.5 million and federal funds were $41 million. This year, the Legislative Budget Office (LBO) recommended only $3 million plus carryover for state workforce training funds. Federal funds will be determined based on the state`s poverty and unemployment levels.

Wayne Stonecypher, executive director of the State Board of Community and Junior Colleges, said he didn`t understand the logic in the LBO recommendation “except that I know there was budget contingency money from last year, which is where the $8.2 million came from, and they really pretty much cut all of it.”

“I have high hopes that if anything gets restored, it`ll be workforce training,” he said. “If it doesn`t, we`ll be out of money in September or October. We`ll manage that $3 million the best we can, but it`ll all be committed by then.”

Under the new plan, the two money streams would go in one direction – to the State Workforce Investment Board down to the Planning and Development Districts in each area that would serve as fiscal agents for the money, said Rounsaville.

“They would contract with the community colleges to develop and operate ‘One-Stop’ job centers, whether for individual job seekers or for business group training,” he said. “The community colleges will now oversee both sides of the training – individual and business – not just for businesses.”

Fifteen District Workforce Councils, one for each of the community college districts, would be comprised of up to 15 people recommended by the local chambers of commerce, employee groups, industrial foundations and community organizations, with CEOs or plant managers representing area employers accounting for at least eight members. These councils will advise the community or junior college president on the operation of the workforce development and “One-Stop” centers, said Rounsaville.

“Local Workforce Development Councils currently perform essentially the same functions as the local workforce investment boards but utilize state training dollars,” said Barbour. “They oversee the training that occurs at each of the 15 community colleges’ workforce development centers. The Local Workforce Development Councils will remain intact and will perform advisory roles in the community colleges’ workforce training activities.”

Currently, the Planning and Development Districts can contract training services “with anybody they want to,” said Rounsaville.

“We want them to contract with the community colleges because we feel they are the best providers of workforce training services in the state,” he said. “While we want that, federal law states we can`t force them to do so. Three million dollars of the WIA funds are available for use at the governor`s discretion. We are enticing the Planning and Development Districts to contract with the community colleges by using that $3 million as a carrot, and offering $200,000 to each stream of Planning and Development Districts to community college money for extra training.”

Stonecypher said he`s looking forward to the changes.

“Interestingly enough, the increased responsibility isn`t going to be as much at the state board level as it will at the various community colleges,” he said. “We do envision a real substantial role in the dislocated worker effort. It`s good to be recognized for our efforts and our folks at t
he c
olleges have done an outstanding job. I think there`s finally going to be a real change in how we utilize the federal workforce training dollars.”

Implementation of the first four sections of the bill, which includes naming the State Workforce Investment Board, would take effect immediately upon passage.

“The governor will name people right away,” said Lott. “That board will begin meeting and developing a strategic plan within a couple of months so that by early May, the plan will be in existence. The local boards can then start to respond so that by July 1, we can hit the ground running.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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