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Michaud: We need better, newer ideas to get people working

The jobs crisis in this country is entering

The jobs crisis in this country is entering its fifth year, and notwithstanding the president's statement, the Obama administration has focused too little on expanding opportunities for people to work. Credit: Tribune Media Services / Paul Tong

I don't know how often Republican members of the House of Representatives use quotes from President Barack Obama in their slideshows. Given the caustic partisan scene in Washington, it's probably rare.

But on Tuesday morning, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who chairs the Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee, included a promise from the president's 2012 State of the Union address as she rolled out hearings on her job-training bill.

"I want to cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, [job seekers] have one program, one website, and one place to go for all the information and help that they need. It is time to turn our unemployment system into a reemployment system that puts people to work," the president said on Jan. 24, 2012.

Foxx then declared, matter-of-factly, that her SKILLS Act -- short for Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills -- is "the only proposal that moves us toward the president's goal." She looked around the meeting room. "We had a quote up there a second ago, and I hope everyone had a chance to see it."

It was good political theater -- diplomatic and pointed -- and I hope it works. The jobs crisis in this country is entering its fifth year, and notwithstanding the president's statement, the Obama administration has focused too little on expanding opportunities for people to work.

Foxx's bill, by contrast, could bring some much-needed reform. Though her delivery was subdued, the facts she cited were startling. The federal government is spending $18 billion a year on employment and training services. That's a lot of money. There are more than 50 programs, spread across nine federal agencies.

About 2 million people have managed to find their way through this maze to enter a federal program, according to Foxx, yet only a pitiful 14 percent finished the instruction. And less than half of those who received employment assistance -- resume writing or job searches -- found work.

It makes you wonder what we're getting for that $18 billion. That's like building five new Tappan Zee bridges each year. If we spent the money on bridges like that instead, at least we'd get about 16,000 jobs per bridge out of it.

Foxx's SKILLS Act would eliminate 35 ineffective and redundant programs in favor of a one-stop workforce investment fund.

It would give more flexibility to regional workforce investment boards, which are responsible for policies and oversight of the programs, and require two-thirds of the board members to be employers. That makes unions nervous, but we have to do more for the estimated 13 million people out of work, and 8 million part-time workers who want more hours.

To date, the workforce investment boards, which were created in 1998, have followed 19 federal mandates about who can serve -- leading to "large, unmanageable and unengaged boards," according to Todd Gustafson, executive director of Southwestern Michigan's workforce investment board. That can make it hard to recruit good people for the boards, he told Foxx's subcommittee on Tuesday.

More dynamic, locally focused employment boards could make better use of that $18 billion. When you have 7.1 percent unemployment on Long Island, and an executive of the North Shore-LIJ Health System writing that he's unable to fill high-skills jobs, as he did on these pages in January, you know that some puzzle pieces are missing.

The SKILLS Act would also give local boards freedom to contract directly with community colleges -- important players on Long Island -- to provide training for large groups.

We shouldn't allow these good ideas to sink under the weight of partisanship. As Foxx made quite clear this week, we all agree on the goal.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.