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Lawmakers seek to streamline workforce investment

by Randy Coleman

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- State Sen. John Unger flipped through page after page of the report in front of him and shook his head.

The pages showed that 10 state agencies and more than 45 programs within those agencies are receiving either state or federal money, or both, to spend on a concept called "workforce investment." The total amount of money involved is $330 million.

Workforce investment programs are "designed for people who are currently employed and want to upgrade their skills, or for people who are seeking to enter the job market and want to upgrade their skills," said Unger, D-Berkeley.

"In terms of economic development, it's where the rubber meets the road, so to speak."

The state's $330 million problem is the scattered nature of its workforce investment efforts, Unger said.

A Workforce Investment Board appointed by the governor oversees about $45 million worth of federally funded programs, while $180 million of federal and state money goes to other programs. Another $105 million comes to the state through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal welfare program, said Unger, who is chairman of a Senate subcommittee trying to pull all those programs together.

The subcommittee is part of a larger plan by lawmakers to develop a statewide economic strategy. Frustrated by the state's slow economic growth, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, opened this year's legislative session by appointing an economic development committee and giving it power to study anything its members believe might be affecting the state's economic growth.

Particularly troublesome to Tomblin was workforce development.

"There are all kinds of programs out there we could be using to our advantage, and I don't think we're doing it," Tomblin said.

Unger's subcommittee is a branch the ongoing economic development studies.

The group is working with Gov. Bob Wise, who has expressed similar concerns about the state's workforce investment efforts.

"Our first priority is to inventory what we're doing, and to see how we could make workforce investment services more effective. We want to retain companies we have and attract new ones," Unger said.

"What we're finding is there's not a lot of accountability."

The subcommittee is working on proposed legislation that would be called the West Virginia Workforce Investment Act. Among its purposes would be to bring all workforce investment programs under one legislative oversight committee.

The proposal would also expand the role of the existing workforce investment board.

In February, Wise appointed former delegate Arley Johnson as chairman of the investment board, a full-time position. Wise called on Johnson, who is known for his energy and willingness to fight for causes he believes in, because the governor felt changes in the state's strategy are needed.

One problem, Unger and Johnson said, is that the existing workforce investment board oversees seven regional boards which are ineffective because they are so large. The regional boards have between 40 and 88 members.

"Boards as large as that can't be effective. They just can't work," Johnson has said.

Unger said the committee is likely to call for the existing board to become a commission that would be the focal point of all workforce investment spending. The commission would then report to a legislative oversight commission.

Unger said all ideas are pending agreement by Wise.

"All we're trying to do is streamline the process and give it some accountability," Unger said.

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