Pew report says Phila. jobs centers underperform

Posted: January 18, 2012

Even as Philadelphia's unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 10 percent, the city's prime system to help the jobless find work has underperformed comparable systems in the surrounding counties, other areas around the state, and similar cities across the nation.

That's because the system has failed to convince area businesses to use its CareerLink and EARN center services as a way to find qualified employees, says a report released Wednesday by Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative.

"I was surprised at the low level of engagement of employers," said the study's author, Thomas Ginsberg, a Pew project manager. (See the report online.)

"The system isn't registering employers at a rate equal to the rest of the state. You need the engagement of the employer to make the best situation for the job seeker and for the company also," he said.

In the fiscal year ending in June, according to Pew's calculations, nearly 4,000 employers, or about 12 percent, used Philadelphia's CareerLink system for hiring or some other business service. The average statewide rate was 25 percent.

Even employers on the workforce system's board didn't use the system. "We should be using it," board member Donna Allie, president of Team Clean Inc., told Pew, "but it doesn't work."

The Pew report details a system that is either unknown to employers or confusing to them, leaving the impression, often warranted, that the centers specialize in low-skill, low-wage workers who may not have the qualifications needed for available jobs.

"That's fair," said Mark Edwards, chief executive of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp., which runs the CareerLink and EARN centers. "That's why we need to change."

But any kind of change will face immediate challenges, particularly financial ones. Major state and federal budget cuts will drop the total pot of funding for Philadelphia's programs from $133.7 million last year to about $66.6 million for this fiscal year, according to the Pew report.

On Dec. 31, the state shut three of the city's nine EARN centers, which specialize in helping people on public assistance find jobs.

"These were busy centers helping people move off welfare - helping them find jobs, skills training, resume writing, literacy," said Michael Froehlich, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that advocates for the poor.

Froehlich estimated that 2,000 families were being served at the centers when they closed, putting, he said, about 90 staffers out of work.

Compounding the problem is a complex and confusing organizational structure.

There are basically three entities that try to place workers in jobs: the EARN centers; the CareerLink centers that help laid-off workers and other adults, and a separate youth-employment organization.

The Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board advises on how federal workforce dollars should be spent, with the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp., headed by Edwards, running the CareerLink centers and dispensing contracts for the EARN centers. Even though the board oversees the PWDC, the PWDC funds the board.

Complicating the spaghetti-like organizational chart even further is the set-up at the CareerLink offices in Philadelphia and throughout the state.

At every center, some staffers are state employees and others are employed by the PWDC. Same with each center's manager. The upshot? Each manager must supervise at least some employees who don't depend on him or her for their paychecks. How effectively the two groups of employees meld depends on the personal-leadership qualities of each manager.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that uses this "consortium" model, as it is called.

The result is a patchwork of uneven service.

"Unlike a Wawa, where you can go into any Wawa and you expect the sandwich to be the same, each CareerLink is different. They have the same menu, but the delivery is different," said Patrick Clancy, regional director of the Southeast Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Boards.

He is trying to coordinate the organizations in Philadelphia and the surrounding Pennsylvania counties.

Meanwhile, every CareerLink, EARN center, and youth program in the city, the suburbs and New Jersey has its own job developers, who contact companies' human-resource departments for job postings.

The competing efforts frustrate and confuse employers, an earlier report on the workforce system noted. Employers think that the various centers "are competing to place workers with employers to meet performance measurements, rather than considering very specific employer needs," the report said.

"The city suffers from a talent mismatch," Ginsberg said, with job openings requiring workers with skills while one in three applicants at CareerLink need to be referred to city-run adult-literacy courses.

Area employers find the CareerLink and EARN centers to be a mixed bag.

Toni Nazzario, director of human resources at the Center City District, regularly uses CareerLink to help her find the teal-jacketed customer-service representatives who offer assistance to passersby in Center City.

"It works if you get a [CareerLink] staffing specialist to work with you," Nazzario said. The personal relationships she has developed with two staffing specialists at the Center City CareerLink have led to good cooperation.

On the other hand, manufacturers who work with the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center have had a less-even experience, said Anthony Girifalco, executive vice president of the nonprofit consulting group.

"I don't think the majority know about it," Girifalco said in an interview Tuesday. "The ones who use it haven't had a lot of success. I think they are looking for a higher-level education and skill than the folks that typically come through the CareerLink."

Job seekers have similar complaints.

"I've heard of [CareerLink]," said Soo Lee, a data-recovery specialist from Center City who lost his job in March 2010. "I didn't think it would help me, so I didn't bother with it." Networking led Lee to a job, which he began in April.

The criticisms in the Pew report are hardly new to Edwards and other workforce-system leaders.

They were contained in a 176-page report released in April - a report commissioned by the organizations themselves. The report laid out, in detail, the many failings of the system, and made broad recommendations for improvements - some of which are being implemented now.

That's why people such as Edwards, of the PWDC, and Meg Shope Koppel, acting president of the Workforce Investment Board, find themselves feeling frustrated by the timing of the Pew report.

"This is all old news," Shope Koppel said. "We've moved beyond this."

Edwards agreed: "Part of me feels that if we had an opportunity to implement [the recommendations] and go through a single cycle, and then evaluate how the system performed, I think it would have given our reform efforts a shot.

He said he hopes the fallout from the report doesn't derail momentum for change, especially if stakeholders perceive it "as a broken system," incapable of reform.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.

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