Today’s Topic: Regional economy:
A version of Georgia Works, our state’s voluntary job-training program, might be part of the economic stimulus package President Barack Obama unveils Thursday. But in its eight-year history, only 24.2 percent of the participants were hired by employers who took part. In a guest column, state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler applauds the concept, if not the execution.
By Rick Badie
Related commentary: Georgia Works isn’t the only answer
Georgia Works, the state’s voluntary job-training program, has been called a number of things. Some comments are flattering. Others ring foul.
The program’s detractors deem it slave labor, a violation of federal wage and hour laws with a tepid measure of success. Proponents say it reduces an employer’s hiring risk, provides training for the jobless and, it is hoped, leads to a paycheck.
One observer’s opinion, though, may hold more sway than most. He’s responsible for trying to stimulate the nation’s listless economy. This week, he is to unveil a jobs package that’s said to include some version of this state’s Georgia Works initiative.
“There is a smart program in Georgia,” President Barack Obama said earlier this month. “You’re essentially earning a salary and getting your foot in the door into that company.”
Launched in 2003, Georgia Works allows people receiving unemployment insurance to work — without pay — as trainees at local companies for up to eight weeks. They continue to receive their jobless benefits and pocket a stipend of up to $240 for expenses during the training. The participating company, meanwhile, doesn’t shoulder training costs and can hire from the participants’ lot.
Prosperity America Inc., a call-center operation near Columbus, has used the program to hire nearly 100 people as customer service representatives. The workers make $9 an hour and can earn bonuses.
Fred Landrum, Prosperity’s chief executive, touts Georgia Works’ success.
“We’ve been forthright and tell them, midway in the program, if they are making progress, here’s what you need to improve on, or if they don’t have a chance of being hired, we let them know,” he told me. “People have accused me of using slave labor. That’s not true. They can walk off the job at any point in time if they don’t feel comfortable.”
It’s nice to see the Peach State in headlines for something other than a public school testing scandal and low SAT scores. One wonders, though, if Georgia Works has data to truly justify the national praise.
It has been reported nationwide that, among workers who completed the full-week training, their employment rate is 24 percent. Actually, the figure is 24.2 percent, said Sam Hall, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Labor. He also stressed that some participants may have received training at one firm, then put those skills to use with a different employer altogether. They could still be jobless, too.
Landrum, the Prosperity America executive, speculated the percentage may be low because participants start training, then, for whatever reason, fail to complete it.
“It’s a trial period for the employer and the employee,” he told me. “I think this is an excellent program, and I think it’s excellent the president is looking at it.”
Georgia Works may very well serve as a model of smart policy that helps address the nation’s precarious job market. If adopted federally, let’s hope it translates into a job-creation strategy that ramps up employment, rather than falters.
Rick Badie joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as an education reporter in 1997. He has covered the region’s immigrant communities, and for several years was opinion columnist for the AJC’s Gwinnett edition. His column appeared as part of the paper’s Saturday Opinion page. A South Georgia native, he also has worked as the newspaper’s feature obituary writer.