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White House announces grants to help the long-term unemployed

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President Barack Obama arrives with PG&E apprentice electrician Erick Varela, a U.S. Army combat infantryman in Iraq, to speak about helping the long-term unemployed.

Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster

To help the long-term unemployed attain the skills they need to find good-paying jobs, the Obama administration will award grants to scale up innovative partnerships among employers and non-profits, including community colleges.

The White House on Friday held an event to raise awareness about long-term unemployment and to ask some of the country’s largest employers to get involved in helping to prepare those individuals for available jobs. To foster that collaboration between public and private sectors, administration officials announced the $150 million Ready to Work program, which will be administered through the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). It will look at partnerships that use effective or promising strategies, such as job-placement assistance, financial counseling, paid internships and registered apprenticeships.

White House report: "Addressing the Negative Cycle of Long-Term Unemployment"

At the American Association of Community Colleges' (AACC) Workforce Development Institute last week in St. Petersburg, Fla., DOL officials cited the importance of getting the long-term unemployed trained and back into the workforce. “We have a need for serious partnerships” to leverage resources, said Eric Seleznow, acting assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, noting that the quality of such partnerships is uneven across the country.

DOL will tap its existing H-1B funds for the grants and will announce a solicitation for applications later this month. Awards will be made by mid-year.

The announcement of the new federal grants came two days after AACC and the Walmart Foundation announced a new $4 million job training initiative targeting middle-skill jobs.

A huge problem

Confronting the persistent joblessness that has marred the economic recovery, President Barack Obama has won commitments for the new effort from more than 300 companies to reach out in their hiring to the nearly 4 million Americans who have been unemployed for half a year or more.

“It’s a cruel Catch-22,” Obama said at the White House event with CEOs, job training groups and advocates for the unemployed. “The longer you’re unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem.”

Obama called that “an illusion” because, he said, such workers are often better qualified and better educated than workers who just recently lost their jobs.

As a percentage of the total labor force, the number of people who have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks — 3.9 million — is the highest in four decades. The number doesn’t include Americans who have been looking for so long that they have given up. For policymakers, the number of such workers is particularly troublesome when it persists even as the economy grows.

Behind the numbers are the faces of unemployed machinists like Vincent Gates in Cincinnati or cashier Bill Paci in Philadelphia or Barbara Greene of Colorado Springs, Colo., who worked for decades as a medical receptionist before becoming jobless.

“At this point, at 44, I’m trying to get a skilled trade,” Gates said. “I feel like they don’t look at me as a good long-term investment” for training.

A different approach

Obama’s event illustrated the types of targeted, non-legislative measures he promised to undertake to expand economic opportunity during his State of the Union address last week.

“Just because you’ve been out of work for a while does not mean that you are not a hard worker,” Obama said. “It means you had bad luck or you were in the wrong industry or you lived in a region of the country that’s catching up a little slower than others in the recovery.”

Even the Obama administration concedes that the outreach to companies has its limits.

“This is a down payment,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez said. “When you’re talking about Fortune 100 companies, you’re talking about force multipliers and when you talk about force multipliers, you’re talking about helping thousands of people.”

Spotlight on what's working

At last week’s White House event, the administration highlighted several successful partnerships with companies that committed to expanding their programs, including Goodwill Industries, the AARP Foundation and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).

  • Goodwill and Accenture plan to launch a new credential-to-careers program, starting with 10 selected Goodwill agencies that already have partnerships with community colleges and area businesses.
  • The AARP Foundation announced that it will team with the AACC to expand its training initiative to train low-income learners age 50 and older for jobs. As part of the Back to Work 50+ expansion, 11 community colleges have already been selected and four more will be added later this year.
  • PG&E announced it will build on its PowerPathway program with a focus on long-term unemployed military veterans. The effort will focus on the greater Fresno, Calif., area, and will include local partners, including community colleges, to prepare veterans for jobs in the utility industry.

Erick Varela, a former Army combat infantryman had been unemployed and homeless, was living occasionally out of his car in California until he found a training program sponsored by PG&E. He described his initial job search as a series of interviews “and the first question out of the mouth was, ‘Why is there a date break in your employment?’”

Today, after a 16-week training period, he is working as an apprentice electrician and is five months away from becoming a journeyman electrician. PG&E was among those who signed up to the White House efforts and agreed to expand the training program it already has underway.

Varela, as one of the success stories, got to introduce the president.

   

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

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