Bridget Caswell for NPR
Alfred Schiazza, an engineer with 33 years of work experience, is interviewed by Nicole Chmielewski, a recruiter at an Employment Connections office in Parma, Ohio.
When Larry Benders started as head of Cleveland's federally funded jobs office in mid-2008, helping people find work usually meant paying for job training.
But when Benders started looking at the results, he realized that Cleveland's Employment Connection was delivering "trained" workers, but not "trained, employed" workers.
It's a nationwide trend. Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans have gone to a federally funded jobs office to sign up for government-subsidized classes to learn new skills. But once they graduate, many complain they still can't find a job.
Those newly trained people would then brush up their resumes and hope that work appeared.
Refocusing On Employers
Last year, Benders decided his office was approaching the problem backward: Instead of focusing on the jobless, the agency needed to be zeroing in on the people doing the hiring.
"So we said, 'Wait a minute, let's go and talk to the employers and say how many welders do you need? And what sort of welders do you need? And what does a successful welder in your organization look like?' " he says. "Then, take that information back and then try to do matches for welders in our system that fit the profile of the specific employer."
Cold Calls Pay Off
But Benders' budget was slashed by 40 percent, and he had to lay off half his staff. So Benders — who had worked at companies including Ben and Jerry's and Johnson & Johnson — overhauled the office.
He hired a marketing team, who cold-called 3,000 companies to find jobs. The move paid off.
Between July and December 2010, Cleveland's jobs office helped nearly 1,500 people get jobs at an average wage of $11.56 an hour. That's about the same number of hires as in the entire previous year, when the agency's staff was twice as large.
The Process At Work
Alfred Schiazza, 55, recently was reviewing his resume with a recruiter in a spartan Employment Connection office in a suburb of Cleveland. Schiazza has 33 years of engineering-related work experience.
Behind him, nearly 50 out-of-work engineers in suits sat and waited their turn.
Here's how it works: Companies tell Employment Connection what they're looking for, recruiters screen candidates, and the best are forwarded on for more interviews and, hopefully, a job offer.
The jobs office does pay for training, but only when there's a position waiting.
Stephen Kowalski, CEO of Kowalski Heat Treating Co., hired four people through the agency even though they were missing specific skills he needed.
"I personally think it's a wonderful use of our tax dollars, because you get tangible results," he says. "People actually get employed, which as far as we're concerned, that should be the ultimate goal."
Prioritizing Placement Over Training
This strategy might sound like common sense, but Cleveland is the only one of Ohio's 20 federally funded workforce areas to put placement over training.
Carl Van Horn, the director of Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, says that when the federal law that authorized states to open these jobs offices was enacted in 1998, the economy was booming.
The law aimed to help retrain workers with out-of-date skills. Fast-forward to 2011 when plenty of people can't find work even though their resumes are impressive.
"So, the challenge in this economy is very different than it was when this law was passed, so there is a bit of a mismatch between the policy structure that we have at the federal level and the realities of the economy that we face today," Van Horn says.
Labor experts say many of the country's nearly 600 federally funded workforce areas emphasize training, but no one really knows how unusual Cleveland's strategy is.
Cleveland's Ambitious Goal
Chris King, a labor economist and the director of the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources at the University of Texas, says focusing on hiring is smart but difficult.
"If you make a really good match between a progressive employer [who is] going to help train those people once they get on the job, that's going to have much better results," he says. "If you simply make a match in a firm that's busy turning people over right and left, that's really not going to do much for anybody."
Cleveland's Employment Connection says it's on track to double the number of people it helps this year — not by just offering them retraining, but by finding jobs for the workers who come to them for help.