Workforce Investment Act: Hard labor
- By Brian Robinson
- Jan 07, 2001
Information technology is not unlike public policy: What looks good on paper
can be a bear to carry out.
For example, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 intertwines policy
dilemmas with technology issues to make the law's good intentions a struggle
The law, designed to reduce the welfare payroll and boost the quality
of the nation's workforce, spurs state and local governments to give the
public better access to information about employment opportunities, education
and training programs and similar resources.
It's a tailor-made application for IT, as Congress recognized when writing
Computers are ideal for consolidating information and getting it out
to a wide audience, as required by this law. And last July, when states
turned in their five-year strategies for building their workforce investment
systems, technology had a part in nearly every aspect of those plans.
But it is not as easy as it looks, according to states that got a jump on
the project. As if integrating data usually managed by different agencies
was not challenging enough, cultural problems and management headaches have
slowed progress as well.
No one is giving up hope, but it's clear that the simple concept of
a workforce investment system will not be simple to deliver.
So Far to Go
Utah officials probably know the challenges better than anyone. The
state began looking at ways to reduce redundancies in its workforce programs
in 1994, well before the Workforce Investment Act. But when talk began on
workforce legislation, the state focused on projects that would be eligible
for the legislation's companion block grants.
Utah created the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) in 1995 by consolidating
five agencies and produced its first designs for employment centers — a
precursor to the one-stop delivery system that became a centerpiece of the
The one-stop system is intended to bring together at one site all of
the services that people might need to get a job — technical training, retraining
employment advice, job search assistance, even resume help — rather than
send them from office to office looking for information.
Instead of relocating information physically, most states envision using
the Internet to provide a point of access maintained in different government
databases and setting up employment centers with computers and staff to
help people in their searches.
Utah was so far ahead of the game that the people who were putting the
Workforce Investment Act together went to look at what the state was doing,
said Curt Stewart, public information officer for the DWS. Even so, it will
still be some time before the state's one-stop system is fully up and running.
Information technology "is a tough issue, and its development for the
[act] and the [one-stop] centers is still ongoing," Stewart said. "There
was just so much information that needed to be incorporated into the system
and so much software development that had to be done."
DWS also had to train people while they remained at their regular jobs.
And the training could be formidable if the people were coming from an agency
that had been using terminals without processing capabilities, not PCs.
Some people didn't even know how to use e-mail. The new department also
had to accommodate the different financial management systems the former
agencies had used.
"We had to rewire [and] reprogram [systems] and retrain people," Stewart
Even with the lead time Utah had in designing its system, the state
is only three years into what is likely to be a five-year deal before all
the kinks are worked out, Stewart said.
A Case for Cooperation
Similar problems can trip up agencies as they develop central case management
systems to track services and the progress of their customers.
There's no doubt that the best approach is a computer-based system,
which Congress encouraged in the legislation. But straightforward solutions
are often complicated because services are being provided by multiple agencies.
Tennessee had problems coordinating the efforts of eight major agencies
that were partnering to provide workforce services. The state's solution
was the Case Management Activity and Tracking System, a Web-based system
accessible across the agencies but stored in a single database.
"We had a lot of autonomous systems scattered around the state that
were not connected and contained a lot of redundant data," said Mark Clark,
director of technology for CMATS. "So we actively looked to create that
single repository of data."
Tennessee agencies use CMATS to register all job seekers who apply for
services. Then the agencies use the system to track which services are supplied,
the progress of cases through the system and the associated costs of the
services. The system captures information required by state and federal
The system also ensures that people entering the system get the services
they need. As part of CMATS registration, people are asked which opportunities
interest them. The answers become part of the standard profiles and shape
what services they receive.
Over time, as an individual moves through Tennessee's workforce system,
CMATS develops a more thorough profile, showing which resources have been
used and which should be increased or decreased.
And because CMATS is Web-based, people can stay within the system even
if they move to a different part of the state. Job counselors at one-stop
centers across the state can tap into CMATS online to access case information.
The Price of Success
Indeed, the Internet is playing a major role in workforce investment
systems because it provides anywhere, anytime access. But that is not to
say access comes cheaply.
Connecticut was one of the first states to consider a comprehensive
workforce development system, and it has had its statewide Connecticut Works
program up and running since 1996, well before the enactment of the Workforce
Investment Act. But consolidation seemed to be an insurmountable project
in the early days, as the program staff faced the prospect of linking institutions,
such as libraries, that have many sites across the state.
"If we had had to do it by installing lines for each of them, we just
didn't know if we would have been able to do it in terms of the time it
would have taken and the cost," said Lynn Dallas, director of the state's
Hamden job center, and who is closely involved in the planning for Connecticut's
workforce program. "Then, lo and behold, along comes the Internet, and suddenly
that question was answered."
But the state was still left providing PCs for everyone involved with
the project, including workforce investment boards working at the local
government level. "Then we had to provide the technology for the kiosks
we set up at the various government department offices," Dallas said. "The
first generation looked like mobile gas pumps with touch screens, though
the next generation looked a little better and had a mouse as well, so they
were more useful."
All told, Dallas said, the state spent $3 million just on the setup
costs for Connecticut Works.
The cost concerns are not easily dispelled, given the complex nature
of the law.
"Probably the biggest impediment from our point of view so far has been
cost allocation [at the centers]," said Lindell Thurman, manager of field
services in Missouri's Division of Workforce Development. "We've had no
good guidance until recently about how all of the federal programs involved
in [the Workforce Investment Act] and the one-stop centers will share the
costs. And how those allocations are made will likely affect what technology
is used and who pays for the PCs and their repair."
There are also questions about how large an audience these centers will
From the outset, the act focused on serving the economically disadvantaged,
but some people would like to see programs opened up as a resource to the
general population, said Tom Kirksey, director of the workforce training
division in Michigan's Department of Career Development.
"To a large extent, this affects how we do our marketing of the program,"
Kirksey said. "If it's going to be a program for targeted populations, it
makes no sense to advertise it on a global basis."
Taking everything into account, the Workforce Investment Act "is still
probably a program ahead of its time," Thurman said.
"We are probably talking years about pulling all of this together, and
a major drag will be people rather than technology," he said. "And then,
of course, there's the fact that all of us are living under funding constraints.
If the money was there, we could probably say we'd have a darned good chance
of meeting the full demands of the [act]."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.