Georgia Jobs Program, Lauded By Obama, Has Critics Georgia Works is among the training programs President Obama is considering as part of his new federal jobs program, to be announced next week. It has been called a success by some, but has been criticized for how participants are paid. It's also unclear how successful a similar program would be at the national level.
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Georgia Jobs Program, Lauded By Obama, Has Critics

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Georgia Jobs Program, Lauded By Obama, Has Critics

Georgia Jobs Program, Lauded By Obama, Has Critics

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

New unemployment numbers are out this morning, and the news is unchanged. The unemployment rate remains 9.1 percent. So this is a situation where no news is definitely not good news.

The Labor Department says, on balance, employers stopped adding jobs last month. Private employers hired few people. Government employers removed some people from the payrolls - a sign that businesses are worried the economy may be slipping into another recession.

This report comes after weeks of market anxiety and self-inflicted wounds. The Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, said the chaotic fight in Washington over raising the debt ceiling last month probably disrupted the economy.

Jobs will be the focus of President Obama's speech to Congress on Thursday, which could include plans for some kind of worker training program. Among those the president has studied is one in Georgia.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports it has mixed reviews.

KATHY LOHR: At a recent town hall meeting in Illinois, President Obama answered questions about the sagging economy, and he mentioned a Georgia job training program. It's called Georgia Works, and it allows a company to try out a prospective employee for eight weeks while the worker still receives an unemployment check.

President BARACK OBAMA: And if they hire you full time, then the unemployment insurance is used to subsidize you getting trained and getting a job.

LOHR: Mr. Obama called Georgia Works a smart program. It began in 2003, and under the latest version, the state pays a $240 stipend to those to participate. The goal is that trainees will get a full-time position by the end of the training period.

Ms. JACQUE WILLIS WALKER (Georgia State University Educational Opportunity Center): I see that you left me a message that you were interested in the Georgia Works program.

LOHR: Jacque Willis Walker is handling calls at Georgia State University's Educational Opportunity Center. She says 15 employees here have been hired through Georgia Works, including herself.

Ms. WALKER: I was able to glean information and learn things I hadn't learned before, to enhance me as an individual, so that I am an asset wherever I go.

LOHR: Willis Walker was a forensic toxicologist who was laid off. With Georgia's unemployment rate above the national average, she says she couldn't find a job. But after the training, she got a temporary position, which led to a full-time job at the university.

Ms. WALKER: It's been a success. I will say, in my department alone, there are four other people who came through the Georgia Works program.

LOHR: Last fall, the program was expanded to allow not only those getting unemployment benefits, but the long-term unemployed to try it. Then, Georgia Works paid a $600 stipend, but so many signed up that the budget was wiped out in months.

Mr. SAM HALL (Spokesman, Georgia Labor Department): No one could have anticipated the response that we got.

LOHR: Sam Hall, a spokesman for the Georgia Labor Department, says the state had to reduce the program after paying out $5 million in just four months - as much as it had paid out in the previous seven years.

Mr. HALL: At this point, the enrollment has dropped significantly, and we're in the process of evaluating how Georgia Works will be administered in the future.

LOHR: Since 2003, Georgia officials claim a 24 percent success rate, with nearly 5,600 people getting jobs by the end of the training. They say the program helps employers who see a reduced training cost and benefits employees who gain new skills.

But critics say it exploits people who are doing real work, but not getting paid.

George Wentworth is with the National Employment Law Project.

Mr. GEORGE WENTWORTH (National Employment Law Project): The activities that the workers are engaged in are basically employment, which means they should be entitled to the minimum wage and should not be working off their unemployment insurance benefits.

LOHR: The group asked the U.S. Labor Department to take a look at the program, alleging Georgia Works is basically an unpaid job audition that may violate federal labor laws. So Wentworth is concerned about efforts to expand the program nationally.

Mr. WENTWORTH: What we don't know is whether or not, you know, a federal proposal to model the Georgia works program would deal with some of those legal objections.

LOHR: More than 30 states have expressed interest in Georgia's program, and New Hampshire began one about a year ago, without a stipend. Officials say they've had a 60 percent success rate there, with 147 employees hired. That's such a small number, it's not clear how successful the New Hampshire program would be nationally.

In Georgia right now, there are only about 20 people currently training in Georgia Works, including Rhonda Davis, who lost her job in June.

Ms. RHONDA DAVIS: It's filled me with some hope, because I was to the point, I was like, I'm never going to find a job. It's going to take forever.

LOHR: Davis was a human resources executive making about $85,000 a year when her company downsized. Now she's in training for a job that pays less than half of that.

Ms. DAVIS: I have a mortgage. I have things that I need to pay. I know I won't be receiving the salary that I was making prior to it, and I'm okay with that.

LOHR: Georgia officials say they're looking at how to sustain the program long-term. With 10 percent unemployment in the state, labor economists aren't sure whether it's the plan the White House should back, but they say it's clear the administration needs to do something to create jobs.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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