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Help Wanted: Serving Connecticut’s Neediest Citizens Through Job Training
For references, figures, and tables see the PDF attachment at the bottom of the page.
Employment challenges represent a common thread through the otherwise diverse stories of Connecticut’s disadvantaged citizens. For recipients of social services (from ex-offenders to at-risk youth to displaced workers), challenges for attaining employment can seem insurmountable. Especially in troubled cities such as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, education and employment outcomes of Connecticut citizens are grim.
Programs that give disadvantaged individuals the skills needed to achieve local employment benefit families, communities and taxpayers alike. Connecticut should strengthen its job training efforts to ensure that disadvantaged citizens achieve self-sufficiency.
By focusing on proven best practices in job training, policymakers and program administrators can maximize the value of social services dollars spent on our state’s neediest citizens.
• Attainment of employment is possible for almost all citizens, despite disadvantaged or checkered pasts. Because the barriers to work that face so many social services clients are complex and varied, policies must encourage creative job training strategies such as instruction in entrepreneurship.
• In addition, job training programs should collaborate with community colleges and take cues from the needs of local industry.
• The potential for at-risk populations to eventually rely on costly public dependence is high. Connecticut should employ a proactive approach to skill development and employment preparation, empowering disadvantaged youth early on with the capacity to pursue careers.
The state’s high taxes and bloated public employment bureaucracy continue to invite economic stagnation, resulting in a dearth of job opportunities and of skilled labor. Effective, innovative job training for underemployed populations presents a real opportunity to improve conditions in Connecticut for businesses, taxpayers and, most important, our neediest citizens. Unemployment exacerbates the problems and behaviors that can lead to public dependence, incarceration or worse. Conversely, earning a steady paycheck eases life challenges and deters the harmful, costly actions that stem from idleness and desperation.
The Great Conundrum
Residents of Connecticut generously contribute over $5 billion per year towards serving our neediest citizens; however, too many valuable social services dollars are absorbed by administrative red-tape and an inflated public bureaucracy. This presents a conundrum to taxpayers who care about Connecticut’s disadvantaged citizens, but want to see their hard-earned dollars put to good use.
One promising solution is to use job training to help Connecticut’s most disadvantaged citizens achieve self- sufficiency. While the obstacles faced by social services recipients are varied and complex, evidence increasingly suggests that job training can enable many such citizens to attain employment and discontinue costly long-term public dependence.
Both taxpayers and needy citizens benefit from efficient and effective training programs, because when individuals achieve financial independence, the results touch families, neighborhoods and the state.
Is Job Training a “Fair” Human Service Policy?
An individual’s inability to acquire or sustain employment often reaches far beyond a lack of marketable skills. Merely completing an application can sometimes present a challenge. From reading and writing, to hygiene and manners, many underprivileged citizens lack knowledge that is fundamental to obtaining even minimum wage jobs, keeping higher paying and skilled employment far out of reach.
Is it fair, then, to speak of re-focusing state and local benefit programs to emphasize the mastery of job skills?
We all know about the calamitous forecasts made in 1996, when the federal welfare reform act (PRWORA) became law. Yet it has become clear over the last decade that work requirements and time limits on benefits have proven overwhelmingly successful in reducing the worst aspects of welfare. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Robert E. Rector,
The 1996 welfare reform legislation made remarkable headway in helping welfare dependents to move toward self-sufficiency. It dramatically reduced the caseload of dependents, reduced child poverty, and increased employment among single mothers.
Connecticut’s experience with the work requirements of this once-controversial federal legislation has been especially impressive. According to an assessment by the Cato Institute, Connecticut ranked 6th nationally in implementing welfare reforms. As we shall see, applying a job training component to social service programs for the disabled and disadvantaged is not only fair, but compassionate as well.
What the State Needs Now
Connecticut’s economic forecast in the coming years is truly dire. According to a report by the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, the state “lags the nation and most other northeastern states” in job growth, projected productivity growth, new business formation, personal income growth and distribution, and “many other measures of economic growth.”
The grim facts are these:
• Connecticut has had near zero job growth in recent years.
• The state’s exceptionally high tax burden discourages entrepreneurship and industrial growth.
• Competition for investment is no longer just regional or national, but international. To attract new businesses and keep younger workers, Connecticut vies, not only with New York and Mississippi, but also with India, Brazil and China.
• Population growth in Connecticut is slow, and our existing population is aging. Young college graduates are moving elsewhere to start families, careers and businesses, while those who remain face the disproportionate financial burden of supporting retiring and aging residents.
• The majority of Connecticut’s population growth is attributable to urban minorities and immigrants, who experience the highest unemployment levels.
• Our growing populations are concentrated in Connecticut’s poorest cities, where economic development, employment opportunities and other quality of life factors are grim.
• Connecticut’s reputation for good public schools is really confined to affluent and largely white suburbs. On average, only about 6 percent of Connecticut’s urban 10th graders pass all four sections of the state’s mastery test, and “average SAT scores for Hartford and Bridgeport are less than 800 combined for math and verbal subtests.”
High school completion rates for black and Hispanic students have been estimated to be as low as 50 percent statewide.
There are no simple solutions to these problems. Remedies include reduced income-, corporate- and property taxes to attract new business investment in Connecticut and market oriented reforms of public schools to make the education establishment more accountable for results, especially in the cities.
But turning citizens who languish with some disability into productive ones clearly benefits all taxpayers in at least two ways: by reducing the social services caseload (and therefore its cost) over the long run and by creating a workforce that will attract business into the Nutmeg state.
Who Receives Job Training Now?
Most state-sponsored job training programs administer to poor, disadvantaged, underemployed or unemployed residents, or individuals facing job displacement due to shifting industry needs, especially in low-skill manufacturing. Many job training programs are fully funded by the participants themselves and privately administered either by businesses or through educational institutions. However, taxpayer funded programs usually cater to “special populations” such as out-of-school youth, ex-offenders, the homeless, low-wage workers hoping to increase their earning potential, young single mothers, new immigrants and individuals with physical disabilities.
Job Training for the Disadvantaged in Connecticut
A combination of federal and state money – reinforced by generous but statistically small private contributions – supports most job training programs in Connecticut. Generally speaking, their effectiveness could be greatly improved by:
• Making more funds available for services by bringing excessive compensation for government workers in line with private compensation for comparable work. A level labor market would also reduce staff turnover, markedly improve the quality of services and reduce inefficiencies;
• Reducing the needless and costly administrative burdens with which private social service providers are forced to comply;
• Elevating the status of job training and related programs;
• And most important, encouraging adoption of job training programs by private employers.
National research suggests that these goals are most effectively accomplished when government and non-profit agencies adopt programs that reflect five “best practices”:
1. The Demand-Driven Approach
2. Collegiate and Community Collaboration
3. Skip Employment – Become an Owner
4. Proactive Policies and Early Intervention
5. Increase Volunteerism
1.) The Demand-Driven Approach
Most experts agree that the best approach to job training is demand-driven, meaning programs are catered to a fusion of industry and labor interests. For example, severe demand has prompted an array of health care training programs, the outcomes of which benefit businesses, taxpayers, program participants and health care consumers. Figure 1 illustrates the potential earning opportunities in Connecticut from job training in the nursing industry.
The following are examples of Connecticut-based programs already taking cues from
• The Urban League of Greater Hartford’s Pharmacy Technician Training Program trains and helps place participants in local pharmacies and hospitals.
• Goodwin College has initiated the first associate degree program in homeland security in Connecticut. “We are very aware of the needs of workers and employers in our region and actively seek ways to help them by providing educational opportunities,” says college president Mark Scheinberg. “At the same time, we also try to anticipate the future needs of our region and offer programs in areas of employment that are expected to experience strong growth in the future.”
Major occupation groups showing the most growth potential between 2004 and 2014 include computer and mathematical occupations (19.6%), community and social services occupations (17.0%), health care practitioners and technical occupations (14.5%) and health care support occupations (16.5%).
Major industry groups showing the highest growth potential during the same period include health care and social assistance (17.5%), professional, scientific and technical services (14.8%) and information (13.2%).
Job training in Connecticut should cater to these high-growth industries. Arming economically and socially disadvantaged residents with the skills to seek employment in these areas can ensure reduction in costly long-term dependence on public assistance. In addition, a healthy workforce will attract businesses and encourage growth.
2.) Using Existing Assets: Collegiate and Community Collaboration
If Connecticut can learn anything from taking a national perspective, it is that community colleges are one of the most effective institutions for providing job training, both to the disadvantaged and to low skilled workers wishing to advance their marketability.
In addition, community colleges offer skill adjustment programs that may enable adult workers affected by shifting industry demand to find new employment and avoid costly dependence on public assistance. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, “Post-secondary institutions, especially community colleges and apprenticeship programs, will be increasingly critical providers of skills training to workers needing to retool, refine, and broaden their skills.”
Although the cost of community colleges and state universities is sometimes inflated by public employee compensation packages, they still do an effective job of educating immigrants, disadvantaged citizens and low income populations. Especially when freed from bureaucratic regulation, they could enhance their job training role, reducing costs for students and taxpayers.
Consider the case of Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Years ago, as manufacturing jobs began to move offshore and thousands of workers were displaced, local businessmen and college officials had the foresight to collaborate in creating a biotechnology training curriculum that provided unemployed workers, high school students and many disadvantaged individuals with careers that turned a potential economic disaster into an opportunity for local development.
Some community colleges in Connecticut have already recognized their potential for helping the poor and disadvantaged to have productive lives. “We try to create middle class taxpayers,” states Rab Thornton, Dean of Outreach Services at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. “(We) try to raise people from one level to the next through better jobs.” In just one of its demand-driven initiatives, Housatonic Community College matches its curriculum to the needs of the 198 metal manufacturing companies in its region.
3.) Skip Employment — Become an Owner
Because the needs of training-seekers and employers are diverse and mercurial, successful programs must be willing to risk innovation. Teaching entreprenuership is a daring approach that both facilitates self-sufficiency and offers a level of dignity unattainable in most work opportunities available to job training clients.
Take the problem of ex-offenders, who are often termed the “hardest to help.” Despite existing incentives, businesses are frequently reluctant to hire individuals with checkered pasts. This absence of opportunity is a vicious cycle, which leads to high rates of recidivism.
So how can the hardest to hire, burdened by a lack of marketable skills, by past transgressions and often by a history of drug dependency, finally become productive citizens?
Entreprenuership is an innovative approach that eliminates completely the obstacle of becoming employable and teaches ex-offenders, gang members, drug addicts and others who face job discrimination to become their own bosses. After spending a portion of adult life incarcerated, a person who creates his own business (from hot-dog stands to selling T-shirts) often finds it the most viable – and empowering – route to self sufficiency.
The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), with offices and partners throughout the world, has demonstrated that modeling self-employment is one of the most successful ways for helping young people achieve prosperity. Inspired by the vision that “every young person will find a pathway to prosperity,” NFTE has trained more than 3,700 Certified Entrepreneurship Teachers over the last 20 years to build work skills and unlock youth’s entrepreneurial creativity.
A related approach to transitioning the hard-to-hire into paid work occurs in Los Angeles, California, at Jobs for a Future/Homeboy Industries. This ground-breaking organization provides counseling, free tattoo removal and entrepreneurship skills to gang-affiliated individuals and ex-offenders. Participants are employed at the organization’s own successful businesses, which include a bakery, a silk screening shop and maintenance and
Jobs for a Future/Homeboy Industries services a greater number of gang-involved men and women than any other organization in Los Angeles. Indeed, the innovation, creativity, and most important, the success of Jobs for a Future/Homeboy Industries have garnered national attention. “It is now America’s largest gang intervention program and has helped transform the lives of thousands,” states Readers Digest, a widely read household magazine, in a recent story on the organization.
4.) Early Intervention
Common sense and hard data tell us that the earlier an intervention – and the more extensive the training – the better the outcome. The following visuals (figure 2 series) illustrate the correlation between education and experience, on the one hand, and earnings.
To some extent, Connecticut has recognized the impact of education and experience on income. Connecticut currently has an apprenticeship program, in which around 25 companies hire close to 6,300 “apprentices” who can both work and learn, while simultaneously helping to support them. Connecticut even has a tax incentive for high skill manufacturing apprenticeships.
However, the state has collected no data on how many apprentices started while on some kind of public assistance or on how many of those succeeded in gaining and maintaining employment through the apprenticeship program. Such data would be useful to further explore how the use of apprenticeships might help disadvantaged citizens.
Instances where volunteers have made a positive impact on individuals and communities abound throughout the country. Big Brothers Big Sisters is just one widely known organization that has achieved tremendous long-term success in coupling volunteer role models with at-risk youth, facilitating the encouragement and inspiration that have a positive impact on future education and employment outcomes.
The potential to harness volunteerism in the service of job training clearly exists. Between 1989 and 2006, the rate of Connecticut adults volunteering for community service overall rose 14.8%, a greater increase than in any other state in the same period. Residents in 19 other states volunteer more hours per year than in Connecticut, but our state registers in the middle on the Corporation for National and Community Service’s “Civic Life Index,” which bases ratings on factors such as volunteerism, voting rates, neighborhood engagement and civic infrastructure.
According to the University of Maryland’s Center on Aging, “The world of senior volunteerism is undergoing a transformation of unprecedented proportions driven by the greatest demographic shift in our nation’s history, the baby boomer generation.” Experts from government, nonprofit and academic spheres are strategizing for a new vision of volunteerism, adapted to the vast experience, wealth and volume of baby boomers. A report by the Harvard School of Public Health cites various suggestions for broadening civic engagement of baby boomers: for example, that organizations “should offer a broad set of options that allow people to engage in different ways at different
times and at different levels of commitment,” and that “educational institutions, as they begin to revamp their curricula to meet the needs of older adults as well as youth, … develop inter-generational learning and service opportunities.”
Human services specialists are emphasizing the importance of inter-generational programs, such as mentoring partnerships between baby boomers and at-risk youth, which studies have shown to produce measurable gains in grades, school attendance and attitudes about the future, etc.
Across the United States, experts are planning and experimenting with new strategies for engaging baby boomers in volunteerism. The challenge for Connecticut is to harness emerging procedures that prove effective. From board participation to mentoring to providing internships for youth, volunteer participation from baby boomers can provide much needed enhancement of job training for Connecticut’s disadvantaged, without more cost.
Doing More to Help Our Neediest – Not Spending More
Across America, job training programs are proving essential in the effort to help low-income earners, at-risk and out-of-school youth, teen parents, mentally ill and substance-dependent individuals, ex-offenders, blind and hearing-impaired individuals and disabled veterans to become productive, self-sufficient citizens.
As we have seen, Connecticut is making some progress in the area, but our state is frankly a laggard. Some will argue that our progress in inhibited by tight budgets and looming deficits, but Connecticut’s deficiencies in job training are largely reflective of problems that have plagued our state’s social service agencies for decades:
In the public sector, departments are overstaffed with overcompensated employees. Fewer administrators with reasonable salary and benefit packages could easily perform the necessary oversight functions, leaving more funds for actual services.
At the same time, the state imposes unnecessary costs upon non-profit and other private service providers. Excessive red-tape and bureaucratic density absorb the most valuable resources – money and staff time – while these resources could be much better spent. For example, private organizations that receive funding from a variety of public agencies are required to file separate and inconsistent reports to each.
Real progress requires that policymakers and nonprofit executives aggressively adopt the “best practices” outlined in this paper.
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