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Job program treated like a slothful employee

After infighting and upheaval in the county training program, another overhaul will try to whip it into shape.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000


LARGO -- Jim Reimer and Arlene Corbin made a house call to the unemployed one recent Thursday morning.

The "house" they visited was the Pinellas County Jail. Their plan was to let inmates know that upon their release, they can qualify for federal dollars to help them receive job training.

Reimer says visits like this are part of his job as the person who drives the county "jobmobile" for Pinellas Works, a consortium of agencies led by Lockheed Martin IMS, which oversees training programs for people on welfare and for other workers.

"I'm out all the time," said Reimer, who also cruised recently to job fairs in Tarpon Springs, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

Some critics say innovations like this one have been few and far between, in a system they paint as complacent and inefficient. They are calling for yet another overhaul to a bureaucracy that has changed dramatically in the past few years.

In fact, the overhaul is under way, as a 46-member board is convening to redesign -- make that re-redesign -- the Pinellas welfare-to-work system.

But all the upheaval and infighting have left some wondering whether the unemployed person, or the low-wage worker who wants to move up, may be forgotten along the way.

Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, the current head of the new 46-member Pinellas Workforce Board, has questioned whether the current system is doing enough outreach.

"A lot of it, I think quite frankly, is knowing that there are high unemployment figures in the heart of south St. Petersburg," said Stewart, explaining his frustration.

"Let me tell you how bad it had become," Rick Dodge, assistant county administrator, said at a recent meeting of the Pinellas Workforce Board. He said the state had considered taking over the local system to whip it into shape because of longstanding concerns over its performance.

Dodge, known for his key role in landing a baseball team for St. Petersburg, has complained that the current system seems to lack urgency about helping unemployed and underemployed people. Because people with jobs tend to have fewer social problems, such as drug addiction and domestic violence, pushing job training programs is important to the county's well-being, he says. Yet the county's efforts to push employment sometimes seem invisible.

"I have (heard) a series of complaints about Lockheed Martin and I would want to be able to be very sure that they can deliver the services" before deciding to go further with the company, said Pinellas Commissioner Sallie Parks, a non-voting member of the local board, and a member of a similar new statewide board.

The complaints included people on welfare who couldn't get the training or other help they needed, and local agencies that said Lockheed Martin was not referring clients to them as much as they had expected, Parks said.

Russ Sloan, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said the booming economy and low unemployment of recent years have meant that "filling jobs with good people has become more important than creating jobs." He said the system needs to become more business-oriented, so employers can help people receive exactly the sort of job training that will help them join the local workforce.

In the old system, Sloan said, "I think we were trying to take a social service solution to what needed to be a business solution."

Camille Brockman, project manager for Lockheed Martin, said the system already includes a diverse partnership of local agencies with strong community ties that can respond to local needs. She said she plans to increase the number of jobmobiles to three, to make them more visible in the community.

Lockheed vice president Gerald Miller, interviewed by phone from Texas, said Lockheed Martin's local contract is performance-based, meaning that the company gets paid based on how many people get job training or enroll in job preparation classes and other services.

If people aren't getting helped, Miller said, "You know what happens? We don't get paid. ... That encourages us to go out aggressively."

"I'm very proud of the program," he said.

At the moment, Stewart, who is chairman of the Pinellas County Commission, is acting aggressively, too.

He has pushed an audit of two local agencies that used to oversee welfare and worker training programs, the Pinellas WAGES Coalition and the Pinellas Workforce Development Board, respectively. They are being replaced by the new Pinellas Workforce Board.

These audits could lead to a review of the contract with Lockheed Martin, to make sure Lockheed is performing the job well, Stewart said.

The new board will need to decide who should serve as its executive staff, which has led to an unusual proposal. A consortium of chambers of commerce in St. Petersburg and Clearwater -- not the first organizations you think of as social service providers -- are strongly considering whether to step in and take over the administrative supervision of the welfare and job training programs.

"If the chambers can't make it work, I don't know who can," said Sloan, who backs the idea.

In the meantime, the squabbling that has plagued the two old boards threatens to make its mark on the new one as well.

Stewart wrote a letter last month specifically telling the two old boards not to sign new contracts or spend more money, because that could tie the hands of the new board.

Less than a week later, Bruce Baptist, executive director of the old Workforce Board, did exactly what he had been asked not to, at least in Stewart's interpretation. Baptist sent a modified 12-month contract with Lockheed Martin to the county attorney.

"I think it was an act of defiance, for what reason is yet to be determined," Stewart said.

Baptist has been very supportive of Lockheed Martin in the past, and Stewart said this move "raises a level of suspicion. Why would he do that?"

Baptist sharply denies doing any favors for Lockheed Martin, as does the company. He says the contract was part of a 20-month, $15-million deal that previously had been negotiated, and that a state official approved his move. He denied disobeying Stewart's wishes.

Meanwhile, Baptist has been pointing out that federal law requires the head of the new local Workforce Board to be someone from the private sector, which presumably would disqualify Stewart.

So the reorganization continues. Last week Stewart announced that while he would still remain active on the board, he would soon step aside as chairman.

The question yet to be answered is whether all this change will make things better for the man or woman who wants job training to better his or her lives.

"We spend enormous amounts of energy going through these internal, bureaucratic political campaigns," said Doug Tuthill, who leads the University of South Florida's Urban Initiative. "We spend more resources on political infighting than we do helping people."

Need a job?

To reach the jobmobile, call Jim Reimer at 424-7110.

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