Summer shows signs recession easing

Visitors and Charleston residents stroll The Battery and White Point Garden. Charleston's accommodations occupancy rates were up slightly in July.

WASHINGTON -- As he prepares to announce a new set of job-creation proposals this week, President Barack Obama is looking closely at a Georgia program that has found a rare sweet spot in the hyper- partisan world of Washington politics: It is popular with Republicans as well as Democrats, and it has drawn praise from job seekers as well as those who do the hiring.

The program, known as Georgia Work$, was started in 2003 and places unemployed Georgia residents into eight-week training programs with interested companies in the hopes that such training stints will lead to full-time employment. Under the arrangement -- which has been likened to a "tryout" for job seekers and employers -- the unemployed can get their foot in the door with an employer, and employers can get an extended look at prospective hires without paying them and with no obligation to offer them a position.

Supporters describe the program as a win-win. Job seekers continue receiving unemployment checks and qualify for a small stipend, paid from an account normally used to cover administrative costs associated with the unemployment system. Employers, meanwhile, pay nothing beyond the taxes they already pay for jobless benefits. The program also helps the state and the larger private sector, since the more people who get jobs, the more income tax revenue the state collects and the lower the jobless benefits that businesses must pay.

Nearly a quarter of the 23,000 job seekers who have successfully finished the program in Georgia eventually were hired by the firms that trained them, and nearly 60 percent were hired somewhere within 90 days.

But a closer look at Georgia Work$ shows that the idea, popular though it is, comes with its own set of challenges. Perhaps the most ominous for Obama is that it has not made much of a dent in Georgia's 10.1 percent unemployment rate, which is the eighth-highest in the nation. In July, Georgia was dead last in the nation in year-over-year job creation, shedding 92,300 jobs. In the same month, just 14 job seekers statewide were paired with employers under Georgia Work$.

Just nine months ago, the Georgia Labor Department, which oversees Georgia Work$, was placing thousands of job seekers each month into the program, according to state figures. Monthly enrollment reached an all-time high of 4,691 last November. By January of this year, however, only 12 job seekers statewide were enrolled in the program, and no more than 24 have been enrolled in any given month since then.

"We became a victim of our own popularity," explains Mike Thurmond, the former Georgia labor commissioner who launched the program eight years ago.

Just before he left office at the end of last year, Thurmond, a Democratic former U.S. Senate candidate, expanded Georgia Work$ so that it could be accessed by anyone seeking a job -- not just those on the official state unemployment rolls, as the rules previously stipulated. He also shortened the training period from eight weeks to six to allow more people to cycle in and out of the program. The idea was to reach out to the "invisible" jobless population, including those whose benefits have run out.

The Georgia Labor Department sped the process along by issuing press releases, posting information on its website and ensuring that career centers informed job seekers about the program, according to Sam Hall, a spokesman with the department. But the campaign, apparently, was too successful.

The surge of applicants caused a cost explosion that nearly bankrupted the program. Under another change made by Thurmond last year, the stipend each Georgia Work$ participant was entitled to -- a fee meant to help defray transportation, child care and other costs associated with working in an unpaid training role for more than a month -- doubled from $300 to $600. By December, three months after the change went into effect, Georgia paid out $2.2 million in stipend checks, compared with just $407,000 in August.

The state was left with no choice but to change course. Georgia's new labor commissioner, Mark Butler, took office this year and immediately tried to put the program on a sustainable course. He slashed the stipend checks from $600 to $240, increased the training period from six weeks back to eight and, most importantly, excluded job seekers who are not on the official state unemployment rolls. The program doesn't even have its own website anymore.

"There was no way it could have continued under (the previous) scenario," Hall said.