Workforce Investment Act: Hard labor

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

to achieve.

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

the law.

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

federal legislation.

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

said.

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

offices.

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

serve.

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.

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