Pew report: City job-seeker system is underperforming

Posted: January 19, 2012

Until he began his new job this week, Mark Forman was an unemployed audiovisual technician from Roxborough, out of work, except for a few side jobs, for more than a year.

He turned to Philadelphia's workforce system, CareerLink, for help finding something, but he said it proved to be a waste of time that did not lead to his new position.

"Usually, the jobs I found posted on CareerLink I found everywhere else," Forman said. "I remember that applying for a job, I typed and typed, and then it sent me to the company website, and I had to do it all over again."

Until this month, CarePartners Plus was a fledgling health-information technology company in Horsham with a half-dozen employees. This year, it has plans to hire 75 IT specialists and data analysts, with annual salaries averaging $60,000.

"CareerLink?" asked Gordon Woodrow, the company's senior vice president. Never heard of it.

The two experiences are emblematic of a workforce system that has underperformed comparable systems in the counties surrounding Philadelphia, other areas around Pennsylvania, and similar cities across the nation, even as the city's unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 10 percent.

The biggest problem? The system has failed to persuade 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.

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

In the fiscal year ended in June, according to Pew's calculations, nearly 4,000 employers, or about 12 percent, registered with Philadelphia's CareerLink system. Only a fraction of that group, Ginsberg estimated, used the system to find employees.

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 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."

Change is afoot.

Immediate challenges

The system is undergoing organizational change, with potential conflicts in management being eliminated. Requests for bids have gone out to find a new operator for the CareerLink centers. Other plans include a more coordinated approach to dealing with employers.

And new state legislation governing unemployment insurance will require all who seek benefits to register with CareerLink, widening the applicant pool and potentially making the system more of a resource to employers.

But any 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 $67.1 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.

The current complex and confusing organizational structure has compounded the system's problems. Basically, three entities try to place workers in jobs: the EARN centers, the CareerLink centers for laid-off workers and other adults, and a separate youth organization.

The Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board advises on how federal workforce dollars should be spent, with the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp. (PWDC), 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.

Further complicating the spaghettilike organizational chart is the setup at CareerLink offices in Philadelphia and statewide.

At every center, some staffers are state employees and others are employed by the PWDC. The upshot? Each manager must supervise at least some employees who are not paid by him or her.

The result is a patchwork of uneven service.

Duplicated effort

"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, director of the Southeast Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Boards, which he is trying to coordinate.

Meanwhile, every CareerLink, EARN, and youth program in the city, the suburbs, and New Jersey has its own job developers, all contacting companies for job postings.

The duplicated effort frustrates and confuses employers, noted an earlier report on the workforce system. 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.

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

Center City District human-resource director Toni Nazzario regularly uses CareerLink to help her hire the teal-jacketed customer-service representatives who patrol the streets: "It works if you get a [CareerLink] staffing specialist to work with you."

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. "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."

The criticisms in the Pew report are hardly new to Edwards and system leaders. They were contained in a 176-page report released in April - a report commissioned by the organizations themselves. The report detailed the system's many failings and made recommendations for improvements, some now being implemented.

That's why Edwards and other leaders find themselves feeling frustrated by the timing of the Pew report.

"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.

Edward Sikina, manager of the CareerLink at Suburban Station, is on the front line to find jobs in a tough economy.

The public workforce system, he said, must help the jobless who can't find work themselves and aren't sought after by private-sector recruiters.

"The labor market will pick and choose who they want," Sikina said. "We are left with the people who are hard to market."


Learn more

about Philadelphia's workforce system, and read the entire Pew report at www.philly.com/jobbing.


Contact staff writer Jane M.

Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com,

or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.

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