Citizen Green: The Business of retraining dislocated workers

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Jordan Green
Jordan Green

by Jordan Green

Come July 1, dozens of workforce-development program staff across 14 counties in the Piedmont Triad will find themselves suddenly unemployed and forced to reapply with private contractors for their old jobs.

You could say it’s emblematic of the precarious state of work in North Carolina that even the people tasked with retraining displaced workers are at risk of losing their jobs. It also reflects a bipartisan zeal for privatization in Raleigh.

“The staff has an average of 15 years in the workforce business, so they’re sort of seasoned folks, and they’re invested in the work they’re doing,” Greensboro/High Point/Guilford County Workforce Development Executive Director Lillian Plummer told members of High Point City Council on April 7.

The changes come courtesy of Senate Bill 73, “Workforce Development/Dislocated Workers,” which was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory last July, with bipartisan and near unanimous approval by members of both houses. The two no votes in the state Senate came from Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) and Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Nash).

“Essentially, what Senate Bill 73 said was that workforce boards across North Carolina could no longer operate services, that they had to procure services and contract the delivery of workforce services,” Plummer explained.

In Guilford County, the privatization of workforce development means that the staff reporting to Plummer will be cut in half. She’ll retain about 16 employees to support the local board and handle financial compliance functions. The remaining half, who handle program operations, will be turned loose into the private labor market.

The Guilford County workforce development board, as part of a consortium of five boards including one responsible for the Northwest Piedmont area covering Forysth County, issued a request for proposals seeking private contractors to run their programs. Whichever private provider is ultimately selected will run local workforce centers, which act as a liaison between recently laid-off workers and businesses seeking qualified employees. The centers offer job-seekers assistance with résumé preparation and job searches, along with referrals to training programs and community colleges. They help employers with outreach and recruitment, and information about the labor market and tax incentives. They also help both parties navigate the complicated unemployment insurance system.

Plummer told members of High Point City Council that the move to privatize workforce development programs aligns with McCrory’s faith in the private sector.

“One of the things that is taking place in North Carolina — and it’s consistent with the administration’s private-public partnership and things being done through the private sector — is this whole movement in part was touched off by a number of private companies who for many years have been trying to find a way to get into the workforce business in North Carolina,” Plummer said.

The most aggressive player is ResCare, a Louisville, Ky.-based company that touts itself as the largest one-stop workforce contractor, private-owned homecare company and private provider of services to people with disabilities.

According to the company’s website, ResCare already operates workforce development programs in the Capital City, Cape Fear and Centralina regions.

The ResCare Inc. Advocacy Fund, the company’s political action committee, greased the skids during the 2012 general election prior to the passage of the law that cleared the way for the company to bid for the contract. The committee donated a total of $6,150 to North Carolina politicians, including $2,000 to then-gubernatorial candidate McCrory and $500 each to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis. And in late 2013, following the bill’s enactment as law, the political action committee dropped another $5,000, including a $750 check to the campaign of Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus), the bill’s sponsor.

Plummer is among those who will be watching closely to see how well ResCare and other private providers perform.

“It is the face of the workforce business right now that companies that are in business and their sole reason for being in business is to deliver workforce services,” she said. “Some of them are very good. Some of them are companies that you have to watch and you have to be willing to cancel their contract if they’re not producing.”