Bush Voucher Plan Threatens Career Centers

By Staff Report

Mar. 15, 2006

Concerned that too many Americans lack basic computer skills, Microsoft late last month made a $3.5 million donation to the U.S. Department of Labor to bolster technology training.

But the one-stop career centers that are the intended recipients of the gift may be targeted for shutdown. That’s according to critics of a Bush administration proposal to put more federal training dollars into the hands of workers seeking to find or change jobs.

Over the course of two years, Micro­soft will send cash and software to nine one-stop centers around the country that administer federal training programs.

Pamela Passman, Microsoft vice president of global corporate affairs, says the company’s partnership with the Labor Department will “help job seekers obtain the IT skills that every working person in America needs to participate in a global knowledge economy.”

The company also is providing a digital literacy curriculum designed to teach the fundamentals of the Internet, word processing, databases, spreadsheets, Web design and digital media to adults who have had little exposure to computers. In the process, Microsoft may be connecting itself to potential future hires and customers.

While Microsoft targets one-stop facilities, the future of those centers is in some doubt. As part of its fiscal year 2007 budget, the Bush administration is proposing $3.4 billion for “career advancement accounts.” The initiative would allocate $3,000 in federal training funds directly to workers each year for two years, potentially obviating their need to use one-stop centers.

Under the administration plan, states would receive a training block grant, 75 percent of which would have to be spent on career accounts. Another 22 percent could be allocated for employment services. Although employment and training programs are slated for a $620 million cut, administration officials say that the career accounts will reduce bureaucratic waste and enable the government to train about 800,000 workers annually, up from about 200,000 currently.

The career account approach will privatize the U.S. training system and put one-stop centers out of business, center advocates say.

“All of that is a smokescreen for the president to find a lot of room in the budget for tax cuts,” says Stephanie Powers, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards. “We’ll end up wasting money. It’s hard for people to self-manage their careers.”

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have given the accounts a chilly reception. “They have not done a good enough job of justifying why they want to create a new program,” says John Scofield, communications director for California Rep. Jerry Lewis, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

A Labor Department official says that career accounts can exist in harmony with one-stop centers. The centers “would continue to have a significant funding stream to support (their) ongoing activities,” says Steven Law, deputy labor secretary. “We want to free up money for direct training services for specific career needs.”

CVS/Pharmacy is a proponent of the one-stop centers. The company turned to them to fill 113 of 280 jobs related to the opening of eight stores in Minnesota in fall 2004. “I became a believer at that point,” says Brian Miller, CVS district sales manager. “Industry can work with government and it can be successful.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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