Job Training: Boon or Bust?

"We're the best-kept secret in town," says marketing director Rosemary Healy-Gonzalez as she walks a visitor through the Capital of Texas Workforce Center, where job-seekers have free access to employment listings, computers for printing resumés, and training courses such as Jobs Ahead and Construction Gateway.

Gonzalez and Jobs Ahead manager Rip Rowan are among four brand-new workforce center staff members hired to heighten the center's visibility and improve placement.

"I feel very fortunate to be in the job that I'm in because it's like watering really fertile ground," Rowan says of his clients. "If you just assist these people and get out of the way, they'll go."

Unfortunately, Jobs Ahead did not help many people go far last year, placing less than half of its participants in jobs paying at least $6.50/hr. with benefits. Rowan clearly isn't satisfied with that performance, and he vows to turn things around.

A large number of the people Jobs Ahead serves are former correctional inmates, poorly skilled, and unfamiliar with the routines of daily work, Rowan says, but they are employable. He says it's his agency's job to help transform them into desirable employees. "What we've gotta do is take the initiative to find the jobs and build the skills," he says. "We need to make a more concerted presentation to these employers, to meet their demand; it's not their [companies'] responsibility, it's ours."

But critics of the workforce center, and of publicly funded job training programs in general, say an eight-week program like Jobs Ahead doesn't give low-skilled people the long-term support they need to enter jobs that pay "living wages." They say that without a systematic means of helping the underemployed overcome personal obstacles -- and without commitment by employers such as microelectronics manufacturers to hire and train low-skilled workers -- job training is a bust.

"The most you can do in a short-term job training program is to give them some pre-employment skills. Well, we're talking about people who have not been in the workforce in a long time and some not at all; in order for them to make a self-sufficiency wage, you're going to have to have some skills and training, and that's not the kind of thing they could get within a short period of time," says Anita Hardeman, co-chair of the Austin Interfaith Alliance.

Next month, Austin Interfaith plans to ask local government and employers for $3 million to launch its own job training/placement services, which the group says will provide employees with as much as two years of "wraparound services" such as counseling, child care, transportation, educational support, and emergency assistance. The target population, says Hardeman, will be workers trapped in minimum-wage jobs who can't afford to go to school and improve their skills.

But Montopolis resident Susana Almanza doesn't believe that job training programs of any type go far enough to address the real problem -- which she sees as a lack of government and corporate responsibility for communities that bear the burdens of the microchip industry. The Montopolis neighborhood, Almanza says, absorbs the traffic and pollution created by the cluster of microelectronic companies located there, but its residents don't work for those companies, despite the area's high unemployment.

Company spokespersons dispute that claim. Miller Bonner of SEMATECH found 14 manufacturing technicians with Montopolis addresses, out of a workforce of 120, on his company's rolls. A spokesperson for Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) says he personally knows Montopolis residents who work at AMD, though he could not confirm whether any worked in the manufacturing, wage-earning sector. Tokyo Electron America administrative vice president Barry Mayer says that his company will always hire people from the immediate community if they have the right skills, but he didn't know if any Montopolis residents were among TEA's workforce, and added that "the target of recruitment" is usually ACC.

The companies say they work hard to stay involved with the community. AMD says its employees are encouraged to tutor in the local elementary schools, donate labor to Habitat for Humanity, and participate on the local neighborhood improvement committee. The company also matches employees' charitable contributions. Tokyo Electron America gave $25,000 to the local recreation center, and has held public meetings to discuss with residents the kinds of jobs the company offers, Mayer says.

Austin Interfaith's Hardeman has been critical of the wages many of those jobs pay, but says that in the long run it can benefit workers to take them. "Once you get your foot in the door, even if you pick a low-level job to begin with, the chance for advancement in those companies is just astronomical," says Hardeman.

Almanza says, however, that until public workforce development focuses on the communities most in need of skills and education, the promised land of high-tech industry will remain foreign to Austin's low-income population. -- K.F.

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