News Column

Workforce Program Provides a New Hope

July 30, 2012

D.E. Smoot

Crystal Brown was a 29-year-old single mother of three in 2009 when she found herself out of work and looking for help.

Brown had been working seven years as office manager for Fanelli Bros. Trucking when the company closed its Muskogee terminal after 30 years.

Following up on her unemployment benefits, Brown wound up at Muskogee Workforce Center. While there, Brown was referred to a case manager who told her about an opportunity available that would allow her to earn a college degree while she was unemployed.

Brown took advantage of the opportunity, and about three years later became another example of Eastern Workforce Investment Board's success stories. With the guidance and services offered through the agency's jobs programs, Brown now has an associate's degree and works as an executive assistant where she ended up getting her fresh start.

"Being a single mom, raising three children alone, there was not an opportunity for me to go back to school -- I had to focus on working full time and supporting my family," Brown said. "I was seeking employment and would have taken the first job available in order to support my family. If I hadn't received the assistance from the Workforce program, I would not have went back to school."

The federal program that changed Brown's "life in so many ways" enabled her to improve her job skills and employability. It was singled out in a report released this past week as "one of the highest performing Workforce Investment Boards in the state."

Even so, the report released Tuesday by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, criticizes the agency's level of funding for direct client services. Coburn's report states "even among the higher performing" programs, "funds spent directly on client services are minimal."

Coburn's report and a budget summary of the agency's program year 2011 allocations and expenditures show EWIB spent 40 percent, or $1.22 million, of its $3.05 million 2011 budget on direct client services. An additional 33 percent, just more than a million dollars, was spent on indirect client costs and 20 percent, or $610,000, administering the program.

Nanette Robertson, EWIB's executive director, and officials with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, said Coburn's report is technically correct with regard to direct expenditures for client services. They say the inclusion of funding for indirect client services boosts the level of support benefiting clients to 73 percent of the agency's 2011 budget.

Combining the two categories of expenses, officials said, provides a better understanding of expenditures that benefit clients and those made to administer the various jobs programs. Some agencies, in fact, do combine the two categories as part of their reporting.

"The definition of direct client services varies from region to region and from state to state," Robertson said. "We need a standard definition."

Norma Noble, deputy secretary of commerce for workforce development, concurred with Robertson's assessment. Noble said the lack of a standard definition stems from the lack of uniform reporting guidelines.

"They ask how much you are spending on training, but they don't ask about the rest of the services being provided," Noble said. "Some people count only services for those enrolled in Workforce Investment Act (programs), and some people count ... people who come into a center."

With regard to EWIB's level of funding for direct and indirect client services, Noble said exceeding "70 percent is pretty good."

"We point to them as an example," Noble said. "We have some in other parts of the state that are at 50-plus percent, and that's pretty good."

One regional agency cited in Coburn's report as a bad example is the now defunct Southeastern Workforce Investment Board. Coburn's report singled it out for spending only 14 percent of its budget for direct client services. Robertson said EWIB, a Muskogee-based agency that primarily serves seven eastern Oklahoma counties, is overseeing the jobs programs in three southeastern counties formerly served by SEWIB on a temporary basis.

Coburn's report also lambasted the duplication of services among the numerous agencies that provide job training and employment services. The report states Oklahoma has 40 different job training programs administered by at least 45 entities at 180 locations. The annual cost of those programs, according to Coburn's report, is $164 million.

Noble, who testified before Congress in April, agreed program overlap exists, but steps are being taken to rectify that. The Governor's Council on Workforce and Economic Development, Noble said, plans to address the issue when it meets Friday.

"A lot of things in the report are issues the governor's council had raised about the system," Noble said. "What we are trying to do in Oklahoma is work within the framework of what federal legislation has given us and make it work the best we can -- making lemonade from lemons."

The lemonade made so far has at least helped people like Brown and many like her whose lives were changed by job-training services they received. Brown said she never would have gone back to school if it weren't for EWIB and its staff.

"I now work with some of the most kind, giving, good-hearted people in the world," Brown said after she was inducted as the 2011 Outstanding Alumni of the Year. "I definitely would not be where I am today without the program and all the wonderful people who pushed me along the way."

Source: (c)2012 the Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Okla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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