HELP WANTED: City Hall Focuses on Hot Job Sectors, but Struggles to Track Workforce Training Budget

San Francisco Public Press
 — Oct 8 2013 - 4:00pm

Behind the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ mantra — Auditor says S.F.’s fractured workforce development system needs new strategy

Six years ago, San Francisco politicians called for better coordination of job training and placement services across the city. A new report reveals that since then, spending has more than doubled while control and evaluation of the sprawling system remain as elusive as ever.

At least 14 local agencies now independently operate an array of workforce development initiatives at an estimated combined cost of $70 million, the city’s budget and legislative analyst found. Without a common citywide strategy, no one has been able to measure accurately how many or what kinds of jobs are being filled, or how much is spent to prepare unemployed San Franciscans for new careers.

Mayor Ed Lee, whose approach to workforce development has focused on meeting the labor needs of some of the fastest-growing local industries, has ordered his own review this fall to map out all employment programs across the city.

In a flood of speeches and press releases, Lee has boasted that the city added 31,000 jobs since he became mayor in 2011. The claim is based on data showing a similar employment recovery across the state. Yet the mayor’s office was unable to point to more specific information about how many of those jobs originated through city-sponsored programs.

The analyst’s report recommends the city create a committee to develop standard performance measures across departments, define citywide goals and set funding priorities. David Chiu, president of the Board of Supervisors, said he endorses this approach.

Experts in and outside of government complained to Chiu earlier this year about the city’s disorganized and cumbersome workforce development system. So he asked the city’s budget and legislative analyst, Harvey Rose, to follow up on a 2007 study that had called that system “fragmented.”

Chiu said the city had to be assured it was getting its money’s worth for the mounting funding levels for workforce development. “You would think and hope that would have a significant impact,” he said. “And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We just don’t know right now.”

The analyst’s report — an unfinished draft of which was released to the San Francisco Public Press through a public records request — estimated that the city’s workforce development system served 10,883 clients last fiscal year, while providing the caveat that some people may have been counted twice.

If the budget and number of people served turn out to be accurate, it would pencil out to a cost of  $6,424 per person.

But the costs vary widely by program. Documents provided by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development show that they range from just a few dollars per person for access to a job-listings website to more than $33,000 each for a hands-on, 18-week training course leading to union construction jobs.

Perhaps the highest-profile local jobs program is TechSF, Lee’s federally funded effort to retrain technology workers for the expected influx of thousands of jobs. The city intends for the $8 million program to place 500 people in tech jobs over four years, a cost of $16,000 per job.

Some critics warn that putting so much focus on industry’s demand for skilled labor ignores the needs of less educated and chronically unemployed workers.

“The mayor’s all about jobs,” said Steve Suzuki, executive director of Asian Neighborhood Design, one of 10 organizations that petitioned City Hall this summer to partially restore funding for training economically disadvantaged job-seekers. “But our question is, what are those jobs, and who has access to them?”

The local economy is recovering from the recession, led by high-tech and real estate. San Francisco’s unemployment rate for August was just 5.6 percent, the third-lowest of any county in California, where the overall rate was 8.8 percent.

But the city’s jobless population, now about 27,300, is demographically diverse, and many idled workers are unprepared to enter some of the city’s highest-growth sectors.

Roughly 88,000 San Francisco residents over 25 years old lack a high school education, making them more than four times as likely to be unemployed than residents who finished high school.

But Lee’s approach has been to focus on the industries that are projected to create the most jobs, a philosophy known in the workforce development world as “sector strategies.” At a meeting of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce in mid-September, Lee cited the 31,000-new-jobs number, attributing the growing employment base to local business leaders, “who have invested in our city and helped me create these jobs every single day.”

The city has established four sector-specific training “academies” for technology, construction, health care and hospitality. But they are not for everybody. All but the hospitality academy are accessible only to those with high school diplomas. And for many, the academies take too long to complete.

 “The people who walk through our doors aren’t usually looking to get into the sectors,” said Don Marcos, executive director of Mission Hiring Hall, which recruits students for the city’s construction sector academy. “They need a job, now.”

‘FRAGMENTED’ SYSTEM

The analyst’s report said the city failed to consolidate San Francisco’s workforce development offerings after a 2007 audit called the system fragmented and inefficient.

Rhonda Simmons, the city’s workforce director, has been tasked with trying to set a clear policy direction since then-Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed her in 2006. The following year the Board of Supervisors made it her responsibility to manage a vast array of programs spread across the city.

But that assignment was “infeasible,” the analyst’s report concluded, because Simmons lacked legal authority over other departments. And the chronic lack of communication means no one is able to standardize tracking of job programs or even create a common definition for “workforce development.”

The 14 city departments identified by the report operate “with varying degrees of awareness” of other programs — suggesting that the programs could be overlapping or neglecting certain needy populations.

For those seeking to re-enter the workforce, the system can be confusing, say front-line job trainers and counselors.

“The same client can be going through programs in different places, with different case managers,” said Abby Snay, executive director of Jewish Vocational Services, a San Francisco-based organization that manages the city-sponsored health care academy. Snay said sector academies help streamline the city’s offering of training programs and make it easier for job seekers to find help, but that the system is far from perfect. “We’re certainly not where we need to be,” she said.

The system’s complexity can make it hard for service organizations to provide comprehensive services. Many city offices, including Economic and Workforce Development, offer grants for very narrowly focused activities. So organizations have long been forced to hunt around for money from other city departments or private donations to keep complementary services alive, said Suzuki of Asian Neighborhood Design.

That only got worse when Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved redevelopment agencies statewide in 2012. San Francisco’s agency had a fund that subsidized a variety of pre-employment needs, such as bus passes or child care, or even a new pair of glasses.

A STRATEGY FOR SOME

The city’s four sector academies are designed to feed into the local industries that will experience the most job growth by the year 2020: Health care jobs are predicted to grow by 13 percent, hospitality by 25 percent, construction by 32 percent and information and communication technology by 52 percent, according to workforce officials.

Sector academies are “considered best practice across the country,” said Rob Black, chairman of the Workforce Investment Board of San Francisco, which oversees the spending of federal workforce dollars, a major revenue source for the academies. The city spent more than twice as much on the sector academies in the last fiscal year as it did in 2008-2009.

“You structure the training programs in alignment with where you see potential hiring and job growth,” Black said. “We want to make sure we’re training people for work in real jobs.”

When TechSF launched last year, Lee’s office said it would help the economic recovery reach every neighborhood in the city, placing some people in jobs and helping others keep their skills fresh. As of August, TechSF had placed 102 enrollees in jobs and 50 in paid internships, and those numbers could increase when more graduate in November, said Gloria Chan, spokeswoman for the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

But not all graduates end up becoming part of the San Francisco economy. At least 12 TechSF graduates have landed at companies elsewhere in California, said Mindy Aronoff, director of training at the Bay Area Video Coalition, an organization that contracts with the city for media career training. Three trainees got jobs out of state, in Utah and Michigan, Aronoff said.

Trainees do not even need to be current San Francisco residents. About 20 percent hailed from outside the city, Aronoff said.

“Because this is a federal grant, I could not stipulate that it’s only San Francisco residents,” Simmons told the Government Audit and Oversight Committee of the Board of Supervisors during a City Hall presentation in April.

In fact, several city departments have fashioned programs to accommodate the quirks of their remote funding. The federal grant for TechSF was pitched as a way to buffer the Silicon Valley region against labor competition from abroad.

“We’re frustrated because there are people in San Francisco who can do these jobs,” Aronoff said. “And they’re getting passed over because companies see them as more expensive than workers from outside America.”

BACK TO BASICS

TechSF may be a godsend for experienced workers who were laid off during the recession or sidelined because of injury. But the program is too small and competitive for the large numbers of unemployed residents who are less prepared.

Enrollees must have a high school education. And some classes require previous training in programming, Web development or motion graphics. Suffice it to say, candidates need to have stable lives to begin with. “It’s really not for someone who doesn’t have access to a computer, because you need to do your homework,” Aronoff said. “It’s really not for someone who doesn’t have a home.”

It can be hard to place job seekers in TechSF, said Shamann Walton, executive director of Young Community Developers Inc., which prepares residents of the city’s economically disadvantaged southeastern neighborhoods for the workforce.

“There’s a tremendous skill gap, a tremendous education gap,” he said. “It’s definitely frustrating. It’s increasingly difficult for them to be connected to the tech world.” Most of Walton’s clients live in Bayview-Hunters Point, which has the third-highest unemployment rate in the city, according to a 2009 local economic analysis.

Marcos, of Mission Hiring Hall, said he has to actively seek out recruits for CityBuild construction academy because most people who come to the organization for help do not qualify for the program. Many lack driver’s licenses, and some are enrolled in drug-treatment programs.

Mission Hiring Hall clients often say they need a job immediately, not after CityBuild’s all-day, five-day-a-week, 18-week certification course. “You get this funding because you show that the people need these types of programs,” Marcos said, “but then the people can’t qualify for the program.”

Instead of shoehorning workers into industry-focused training, Marcos suggested, programs should evaluate individual clients’ interests and work histories, and match them with available jobs. “That’s what works.”

PERSONAL BARRIERS

Some of the most vocal city and nonprofit staff say services for residents with major impediments to employment, such as language barriers or criminal records, face dwindling funding. Part of the reason, they say, is that social services that help people become job-ready are often dismissed as being outside the scope of workforce development.

“There are groups that straddle the line between trying to help people more on a human services side, but also help them get a job,” said Black of the city’s Workforce Investment Board. Workforce development, he said, “is about training someone for a job.”

But hard job skills alone are not enough for participants in the San Francisco Conservation Corps, said Ann Cochran, the group’s executive director. The corps educates and trains 200 people annually, helping them get their GEDs while providing light construction or landscaping experience. All are below the federal poverty level, 80 percent have dropped out of high school, and about 15 percent have criminal records.

“If they don’t have housing, if they have a substance-abuse problem, if they have tickets and can’t get a license, then all the job training in the world doesn’t matter,” Cochran said.

Unemployed city residents face two kinds of barriers: “addressable” and “hidden,” Marcos said. Some could use assistance with résumés or employer networks, and may also need help paying for food, clothing, transportation or work gear. But other people exhibit harder to address, and sometimes hidden, antisocial behaviors — drug or alcohol dependency or a tendency toward rage or domestic violence. People in this category are expensive to bring to the point of competitiveness on the job market.

Asian Neighborhood Design’s construction training program accepts people “who are on probation or parole, who are homeless, who reside in a drug program,” said program manager Jamie Brewster. “You know, the odds are against them. And we take ’em.”

Brewster recruits in Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley, and has even shopped his program around to inmates about to be released from San Quentin prison. He said his job-placement rate is between 65 and 75 percent. The 14-week program costs a total of $140,000 — penciling out to $8,750 for each of 16 students.

Among other things, the money covers a weekly stipend of $50, which helps students attend the program full time, instead of “flipping burgers or standing on the street corner,” Suzuki said.

But the organization used to dip into the local redevelopment agency’s Job Readiness Initiative, and when the agency dissolved, Asian Neighborhood Design scrambled to pay for things like expunging criminal records, high school equivalency degrees and driver’s license fees. As of September, the program appeared poised to shut down after the last classes ended in October. If that happens, Brewster said, “there’s an entire population that will go un-served, who will now recidivate.”

FEDERAL STRINGS ATTACHED

Simmons said her work at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which operates the four sector academies, is limited by the ebb and flow of state and national grants. Restrictions on the target populations also make local strategic planning difficult.

“All federal money is on the decline historically over the last 10 years,” she said, “and our office lives and dies off of federal money.”

More than 60 percent of the office’s $14.9 million budget this fiscal year comes from U.S. government grants that are unlikely to grow. Recession-era stimulus funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has expired. “Remember, we’re in two wars,” Simmons said. “Therefore, when it trickles down to us at a local level, there’s less to play with.”

That has consequences for enrollees of the San Francisco Conservation Corps. After receiving $1 million in federal funds every year since 1988, the organization saw the money stop flowing in 2009. Cochran blamed the shift on a “diminishing priority of the federal government to fund workforce development programs for poor people.”

Without new funds, by January the corps will be unable to offer individual case management, career planning, résumé coaching, mock interview practice and training in social skills in the workplace.

The Office of Economic and Workforce Development is unable to re-route funds from a program like TechSF, which has funding for four years, to other services that are at risk of disappearing. “We have to do what they say, within the confines of the grant,” Simmons said, referring to the federal government.

A coalition of nonprofit organizations banded together after the regular budget season in July and was able to press the Board of Supervisors to spare an extra $1 million, even though they had asked for $3 million. To get the money, each organization will have to apply for one grant at a time, Simmons said. That is the usual process.

To the Board of Supervisors president, Chiu, the summer’s budget battles indicated that the city could be inadvertently neglecting the most deserving job seekers.

“We just need to have a better understanding of who’s being served,” Chiu said. “We need a more complete analysis of what the needs are, what the demand in the workforce is, and a map of all the programs that are out there.”

This story is part of a special report on workforce development in San Francisco in the fall 2013 print edition.

Buy a copy of the fall 2013 print edition through the website, or consider becoming a member and get every edition for the next year.