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Georgia Works: Little Data To Recommend Jobs Program Eyed By White House

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The Georgia Department of Labor has said that within three months of participating in a voluntary job training program, nearly two-thirds of trainees found work. The program has been copied by other states, and the White House has indicated it is considering something similar as part of a forthcoming jobs package.

But the 60 percent of workers who participated in the Georgia program and supposedly found steady work may not have done so. The statistic means only that at some point within 90 days after a person completed the training, the person's Social Security number popped up in state payroll data. It doesn't mean the trainee had a job at the 90-day mark; it could even mean that a person worked just one day during those three months.

The program, known as Georgia Works, lets businesses train workers for eight weeks without having to pay them. The initiative is voluntary for businesses and jobless workers, who train no more than 24 hours a week and receive a $240 stipend on top of unemployment benefits. The White House is reportedly looking to the program as an answer to the growing problem of long-term unemployment, which currently afflicts 6.2 million Americans.

The administration has not commented on its plans but has not denied to HuffPost that it is looking at the initiative, which the administration may consider politically palatable because it can be seen as kind to businesses and workers both. President Barack Obama recently praised the program: "If they hire you full-time, then the unemployment insurance is used to subsidize you getting trained and getting a job."

HuffPost readers: Have you participated in Georgia Works? How about Platform to Employment in Connecticut or the Minnesota Emergency Employment Development initiative? Tell us about it -- email arthur@huffingtonpost.com. Please include your phone number if you're willing to do an interview.

Georgia Works' detractors say it gives businesses free labor; its proponents say the training tryout reduces a company's hiring risks, and they have numbers showing its success.

From its 2003 launch to the end of 2010, some 30,866 trainees entered the program, according to data provided to HuffPost by the Georgia Department of Labor. Of that total, 5,089 workers -- 16.4 percent -- were hired by the company that trained them during or at the end of the training period. (The department says that among workers who completed the full eight-week training, the employment rate is 24 percent.)

How does this success rate stack up to the overall rate at which once-unemployed Georgians have gone back to work? It's probably in the same ballpark.

Census Bureau data show that in 2007 and 2008, 15 percent of Georgians who'd been out of work for six months or longer found work within one month of a survey, according to Jesse Rothstein, an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2009 and 2010, the number fell to 10 percent.

So Georgia Works may have given the jobless a boost, but Census numbers don't make for a clean comparison. They're even less helpful for evaluating the 90-day claim. The key difference is that Census numbers are a snapshot of how many people are employed at a given moment, while the Georgia Works numbers only reflect whether someone worked at any point over a longer period of time.

"So as long as this program is kept truly voluntary, I think it is worth trying," professor Rothstein said in an email. "But I don't think we should count on a program working without more evidence than seems to be available for this one. As an experiment, it's a great idea. But there are other arrows in the quiver, many with more promise than this one -- we should be trying them too. I'm a lot more worried about undershooting than about overshooting."

Micheal Thurmond, the former Georgia labor commissioner who has built a national reputation for himself since creating the program, has a similar view. "It's a strategy. It's a concept. Different states have done it differently," Thurmond told HuffPost. "I'm not advocating Georgia's program, but it's a concept that really has proved to be successful."

Enrollment in the program slowed drastically this year after the state labor department cut the stipend from $600 to $240 and restricted access to only those workers receiving unemployment benefits (it had been opened to nonrecipients in 2010). As of this week the program boasts just 19 trainees.

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