More than two years into Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, two of its key workforce initiatives are slowly taking shape amid an environment with increased unemployment.
Although the administration and business groups are optimistic about Keystone Works and the state's job-matching programs, some workforce development professionals say the state needs other strategies to assist the administration in connecting the unemployed with jobs.
In both programs, the administration is asking for patience because of the necessary ramp-up time, said Sara Goulet, Department of Labor and Industry spokeswoman. For example, the Keystone Works program — which matches workers on unemployment compensation with companies for on-the-job training — was just passed into law this summer and introduced in December.
Jobs Gateway, the state's new effort to match job seekers to companies with open positions, also took additional time because of the move from older technology, Goulet said.
Last year, the programs were a cornerstone of L&I Secretary Julia Hearthway's plans.
"It's too early to take the numbers and say they're successes or not," Goulet said.
Keystone Works allows employers to train workers who remain on their unemployment compensation with the potential to hire that person after the training period is up. If the trainee is hired, the company receives $375 for every four consecutive weeks the employee is on the job, up to $1,500 per worker. The state allotted $2.5 million for the program.
Employers participating in the program are required to submit a training plan to L&I for approval.
"The trainee is also screened to make sure they meet the needs of the training plan, so no one is wasting their time," Goulet said.
Nine companies statewide have approved training plans for 29 positions, according to L&I. There have been two trainees and one was hired after the training session.
Central Pennsylvania companies account for six of the training plans because the state conducted the pilot program in this area, Goulet said.
"It has jumped up pretty quickly, and we expect it to grow as we get further along," she said.
The state does not have any new training plans awaiting approval, she said.
L&I also has been working on its job-matching program to improve connections between job seekers and companies. Since July, it's been transferring users from the old Commonwealth Workforce Development System website to Job Gateways, a more modern site.
"The great thing is that (unemployment compensation) claimants are now immediately directed to this system, so you're helping them earlier to find a job," Goulet said.
Most employers and workers have been moved over to the Gateways site, she said. Employers not part of the old site have not yet joined, she said. The site was opened in October to job seekers not in the unemployment system.
As of March 8, there were 159,000 job seekers on the Gateway site, of which 137,000 were workers in the state unemployment compensation system, Goulet said. There are 96,834 employers registered on the site that transitioned from the old site and 1,399 joined since January.
The state did not know how many job seekers were matched with employers, nor for what time period they retained the jobs, she said. It's working to track those statistics.
The numbers in both programs illustrate one of the larger undercurrents of Pennsylvania's economic realities, workforce professionals said. Essentially, there just aren't enough jobs available to provide for all those seeking them, they said. And there's a mismatch between the skills that workers have and what companies need, which means training is required.
Pennsylvania's January unemployed number was 537,000, an increase of 9.6 percent from last year, including an increase in unemployment rolls and a slowing of growth in some industry sectors.
Without a significant state investment in training, it will be difficult to reverse such trends, workforce professionals said. Training has been talked about the least even though other states seek out Pennsylvania as a workforce development leader, they said.
"People put off the training issue until their back is against the wall," said Robert Garraty, president and CEO of Hummelstown-based Garraty Workforce Investment, a consulting firm. Garraty was the executive director of the Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Board and deputy secretary of Workforce Development at Labor and Industry during the last years of Gov. Ed Rendell's administration.
Cooperation between companies and government has improved, Garraty said. A decade ago, only about 5 percent of employers used the local CareerLink offices to find workers, but in recent years that was as high as 25 percent, he said. Training initiatives were a big part of that, he said.
Although they dealt mostly with incumbent workers, the industry partnerships brought government and companies together to develop greater skills among workers. At the program's height, it received about $15 million, but over the years it was cut to about $1.5 million.
"I really think that had a lot to do with getting employers to step up to the plate and work with government, something they're not always enthusiastic about," Garraty said. "But if you put some money on the table, that brings them along."
Michael Smeltzer, executive director of the York-based Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania, said he is enthusiastic about the administration's programs, particularly Gateway for its improvements over the state's past job/employee search sites. The old site wasn't easy to use and didn't pull in resources from outside the state's system. The new site makes a better attempt to match employers with skilled workers and is not only user friendly, but also business friendly.
But change doesn't always draw people in.
"I think it's going to take some time to overcome the attitude that the system is not friendly to the job creator," Smeltzer said.
Some programs, such as Keystone Works, need time before you can judge their full worth, he said.
"We knew it wasn't going to be a statistical impact program," he said.
But it does incentivize companies to train people for in-demand jobs, he said. Incumbent worker training has its benefits, but the state shouldn't be subsidizing basic soft-skills programs at high costs.
Public money should be used to train people for the jobs that are in demand, and workers need to put in the time to learn new skills, he said. However, there's a bit of roadblock there.
"We don't have the money, and they don't want to give up the time," Smeltzer said. "We hear it so often: 'Just get me a job.''"
Statewide employment and unemployment figures show unemployment is on the rise, and growth is either flat or declining in some industries, including goods-producing industries. The trend is a marked change from previous improvements even as the state says nearly 118,000 jobs have been created over the past three years. Here is a look at January employment and unemployment figures:
Labor force: 6.55 million
Change from 2012: 1.8 percent
Employment: 6.02 million
Change from 2012: 1.2 percent
Change from 2012: 9.6 percent
Unemployment rate: 8.2 percent
2012 unemployment rate: 7.6 percent
Employment and year-over-year change by industry: