Patty in the News

WASHINGTON — Gov. Chris Gregoire last month ordered $3 million set aside from federal worker-training funds to target jobs in the aerospace industry. But jobs for aerospace engineers and aircraft machinists in the Puget Sound area aren't growing, at least according to local projections under the same federal program.

Boeing may be forecasting a hiring boomlet as production ramps up for the 787 Dreamliner and outlook for other aircraft orders brightens. But King and Snohomish counties have yet to account for that shift in drawing up their lists of in-demand occupations to pursue with training dollars.

Addressing those seeming conflicting priorities is one of the key aims of a proposed rewrite of the Workforce Investment Act, the main federal vehicle for moving Americans from unemployment rolls onto payrolls.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on Wednesday filed a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the act, the first substantial update to the law since its passage in 1998. Among the key proposed changes is to beef up training for employed workers who want to upgrade their skills, to promote subsidies to encourage companies to hire and to better track what taxpayers are getting for their $3 billion-a-year investment.

The goal: modernize job training that hasn't always succeeded in preparing Americans for a global economy.

"We have businesses that want to hire, and we know we have workers who want to work, and this bill will help bridge the skills gap that separates them," Murray said in a statement.

In 2010, Washington spent its nearly $60 million share of Workforce Investment Act money to pay for a wide range of services, from résumé critiques to subsidized summer jobs for teens to classes for job seekers who needed to brush up their math skills. The trickiest challenge is to ensure that people acquire skills that employers need filled, said Marléna Sessions, chief executive officer of Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County, one of 12 boards in the state funded by the act.

A community college, for instance, may be eager to expand its program for registered nurses. But local hospitals may want more licensed practical nurses, Sessions said.

So over the past decade, federal efforts have shifted from focusing mainly on serving workers to serving employers as well.

Each of the dozen work-force boards maintains lists of jobs that are deemed in demand. The idea is to help steer workers into expanding, better-paying fields, such as health care or clean energy. Other targeted industries may be smaller ones, such as maritime, whose current work force is aging.

In King County, jobs for aerospace engineers and aircraft-assembly workers are listed as shrinking. Indeed, the state Employment Security Department forecasts a steady decline in aerospace-engineering positions between now and 2018.

Yet in May, Gregoire tapped $3 million in discretionary federal training money she controls to help students and current workers learn skills for jobs in the aerospace industry. Though Gregoire said the money would benefit all 650 aerospace companies in the state, her decision came as Boeing is mulling if and where to build a successor jetliner for its best-selling 737.

Sessions said the roster of in-demand occupations is constantly adjusted to reflect fluctuations in hiring outlook and industry cycles, adding that the King County board would be reviewing its list in September. The revised law promotes regional goal setting and would unify training with economic-development priorities.

Ray Uhalde, vice president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that develops work-force strategies, said various federal training programs don't always work in unison to get people employed.

Adult-education classes for people needing remedial help, for instance, historically may have taught "reading for reading's sake," Uhalde said. Under the revised law, the lessons would become more purposeful, such as teaching calculations or document reading used in construction work.

Another new provision would require more rigorous accounting for results. Washington state tracks outcomes by comparing training recipients to comparable peers, said Bryan Wilson, deputy director of Washington State Workforce Board.

A typical laid-off worker, for instance, uses $6,750 worth of services, which could include courses at community colleges and on-the-job training. The payoff is that such workers land jobs at a rate 5 percentage points higher than for similar workers and earn an average of $3,000 more a year.

Congress has attempted to revamp the Workforce Investment Act at least twice. But the efforts derailed, in part because Democrats and Republicans differed on the scope and shape of the program. This time, Murray is counting on bipartisan support — including key members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee — and the recession to carry the legislation through passage, putting the program on firmer political ground.

Jason Williams, owner of Axeon Technologies in Wenatchee, said he welcomes better coordination between training and employers' needs.

Axeon, a seven-person network-service provider, has hired three employees through the work-force program in the past five years. Each time, taxpayers paid $2,000 to $3,000 in subsidies to Axeon. Williams said the money helped offset the cost of hiring someone who might require a few extra weeks of on-the-job training.

Thanks to the recession, Axeon has a surplus of applications for any opening. The real difficulty, Williams said, isn't finding job seekers with the requisite technical know-how. Instead, it's the shortage of people who have the work ethic and sparkling people skills.

"That's not something any legislation can fix," he said.

- Seattle Times