Critics say One Stop job centers fail to meet needs of businesses

A system of federally funded service centers in South Carolina created to match and train those who need jobs with employers who need workers is not being used by many businesses.

Some business leaders complain that the centers are not well coordinated and the workers' skills do not match companies' needs.

However, an official with the state Employment Security Commission, which operates job placement programs in all 36 "One Stop" work force centers, said any complaints of poor job placement efforts are unfounded.

"I think we're doing an excellent job where there's viable job openings," said Stephen Marshall, deputy executive director for employment and training at the agency.

"Where we get an opportunity by a business to meet their employee needs, we go to the nth degree to ensure we get them a qualified person," he said. "If that quality person is not in that labor force in that community, then unfortunately, we have no control over that. I'm very proud of the services we offer."

How well the centers operate is one focus of lawmakers who have vowed to do what is necessary to improve the state's employment system and reduce its 11.6 percent unemployment rate, fifth worst in the nation.

The business community has long been frustrated with the system, said Otis Rawl, president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

"Some people still use the system and use it productively," he said. "But as a whole, I will tell you, they have lost faith in the system."

John DeWorken, a vice president of the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber last year did a study in which it asked 150 Upstate plant managers about their unmet needs.

"The overwhelming response was we don't have enough skilled workers to hire," he said. "So whatever we have right now, it ain't working."

Peggy Torrey is aware of the frustration in the business community. As deputy secretary for work force development at the state Department of Commerce, her job is to oversee worker training and other programs offered to businesses, the unemployed and the underemployed covered by the federal Workforce Investment Act, which spawned the One Stop system nationwide in 1998.

She said records show that the number of businesses using the One Stops in each county "is not a real large percentage."

"People come to the place where they get the best service and the best result," she said. "I think businesses are using temp agencies and other types of placements. We need to figure out, as a work force system, what are they doing differently than we are."

Marshall said employees at the businesses that use the One Stops represent 40 percent of all employees in the state.

And, he said, there is plenty of evidence that workers find jobs using One Stops.

For 2008, he said, 572,446 people came to the One Stops for service. Of those, 193,400 found a job, he said, and 120,000 of those had been receiving unemployment checks. About 250,000 people receive unemployment in the state during the course of a year, he said.

Right now, he said, businesses have listed about 21,000 jobs with the One Stops, out of a total of 40,000 jobs estimated to be listed through all means statewide.

Rawl and DeWorken said there is a disconnect between the workers sent by the One Stops to employers and the skills the companies require.

"We have no control over the labor market," Marshall said. "We're a referral agency."

Some businesses said they have been pleased with the One Stop Centers. Valerie Pascoe, spokesman for Michelin North America, said the tire maker uses the One Stops.

"They have been responsive to our needs, always posting Michelin positions promptly and providing applications to Michelin as requested," she said.

The centers are operated through 12 local area boards. Nine of the boards have contracted with the ESC to operate the centers, Marshall said, while others use other agencies. Torrey said counties operate some, and one is operated by a private contractor.

Each of the centers offers not only job placement services but also training program referrals provided by several agencies and a variety of services offered by dozens of state and local agencies, from housing to adult education, depending on the One Stop.

Because no one agency controls all the One Stops and their programs, and because some of their data systems do not communicate, some business leaders and legislators believe service suffers.

Rawl said the state chamber is concerned about the number of agencies in the state that he said share in an annual payout of $1 billion for worker training programs. "There just isn't any coordinated activity," he said.

Torrey said the criticism of a lack of coordination has some merit.

"What we see is fragmentation," she said.

Officials are working on the problems, she said. Gov. Mark Sanford has called in various agencies to try to solve the problem of linking the various data systems. Those talks are making progress, she said.

The state board overseeing the Workforce Investment Act programs has recently approved new business services standards that will be applied to One Stops beginning next spring, she said. It will be up to the local boards that oversee the One Stops, though, to make sure the standards are kept, she said.

This year, federal stimulus money has poured into work force training and services programs nationwide. Torrey said South Carolina has received an additional $59 million.

In 2008, she said, her program served 30,378 adults and 14,800 through training. In the first quarter of this fiscal year, as a result of the stimulus money, the program has served 23,998 adults and 10,916 in training, she said.

More than 11,000 also have been served during the past two years in business programs, she said, offering customized training to firms that are introducing new production lines or new technology.

Complaints from the business community surfaced earlier this year in Senate hearings.

"Many senators expressed concern about an overwhelming failure to match unemployed South Carolinians with available jobs," said Sen. Greg Ryberg, chairman of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.

House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham said he believes lawmakers will take steps to increase the efficiency of the One Stops.

Ryberg and other legislators want to try to consolidate work force development and job-matching efforts into one Cabinet agency. A bill to do that did not get a vote this year on the Senate floor. A similar House bill was sent back to committee after floor debate there.