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    Tax dollars help pay for hiring seminars

    The chamber seminars are designed to help WorkNet Pinellas keep entry-level and and low-income workers employed in the county.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 8, 2002


    On Tuesday, about three dozen local business people will gather at the Radisson Suite Resort at Sand Key to learn more about hiring and keeping entry-level, low-wage workers.

    They will do so for free -- and half the tab will be paid with your tax dollars, in a program funded by welfare money.

    Is giving free seminars to businesses that can afford to pay their way the best use of such tax money?

    It's something that wasn't done before the nation's welfare system was revamped five years ago.

    But in the new world of welfare, where officials say "our customer is business" and the object is to get poor people working, such seminars are the product of once-unlikely partners. The program is co-sponsored by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and WorkNet Pinellas, the county's welfare and worker training agency.

    Bonnie Moore, WorkNet's executive director, views such seminars as a good investment. So does the state of Florida. The state earmarked the money used for the seminar specifically for programs to work with business, Moore said.

    "These are dollars that the state has earmarked for our customer, and our customer is business," Moore said. "So they can be good employers for our human capital, which is employees."

    The end result, Moore said, is that more low-wage workers will be hired, and employers will understand them better and keep them employed -- making them less likely to return to WorkNet needing help with child care, transportation, or rent.

    But is it working?

    A $100,000 program of seminars such as this one began in Pinellas last July, but Moore said WorkNet did not have statistics on whether businesses whose managers have attended the seminar are keeping workers longer. Nor could WorkNet staffers provide numbers on Friday of how many businesses have contacted WorkNet after such programs to tell the agency about job openings or ask for other services.

    "We are going to do some measurement," Moore said. "We just haven't gotten to that point."

    At the seminar, business people will learn about how turnover hurts their bottom line, about "dealing with diversity," and how to "maximize potential" of workers. Moore also said participants will role-play. They'll be asked to set a budget for a low-income mother of three, so they can see the obstacles she faces finding reliable child care and transportation.

    "If they understand the (welfare) client, and what their barriers are, then we don't have to spend a huge amount on the client," Moore said, because she's less likely to be fired the first time she's late to work because her car breaks down or her child care falls through.

    "It's a very small investment, really."

    Sounds good, said Isay Gulley, executive director of Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services. But is there accountability?

    "I'm speaking as a taxpayer," Gulley said. "I think there should be some follow-through."

    Gulley said she would like a public list "of those companies who benefited from taxpayers' dollars." That way, she said, people who need jobs would have a good place to start.

    WorkNet's $100,000 is divided between the Clearwater Regional and St. Petersburg Area chambers, which are providing matching money. Each chamber sponsors about 10 programs over the year, Moore said.

    Moore said that WorkNet did a survey showing only 8 percent of Pinellas businesses knew about WorkNet's worker training services. So working with the chambers gives WorkNet much broader exposure to local businesses, she said. That's one reason why Moore doesn't think the businesses should pay to attend such programs, even if they benefit from the training.

    "If we want them to help with retention," she said, "why should we ask them to pay for it?"

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