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Is federal workforce program paying off for Vermont’s unemployed?

Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 5:51 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Even before the pandemic, Vermont was no stranger to workplace woes. Now, a new state report seeks to highlight improvements to the biggest job training program in Vermont.

It’s meant to serve employers and unemployed Vermonters looking to join the workforce. And it’s helping organizations like the Red Cross. Some 90% of their staff are volunteers and it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to recruit.

This program was able to give them a little help.

Working at the American Red Cross takes a broad swath of skills, from assisting during disasters to working blood drives. That’s why Erica Fuller, a volunteer recruitment specialist with the Red Cross of Northern New England, took on an intern for six months earlier this year.

“Our focus was to really involve them with the volunteer recruitment process so that they could directly help my team because I needed that support,” Fuller said.

That intern was hired through the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The state-run program is funded with $7 million in federal cash and is aimed at connecting unemployed Vermonters with skilled jobs.

Basic services include things like resume writing and interview prep, and more specific help, like access to grants for certificates, education or child care. The services are free and are available statewide.

“Many Vermonters do have the skills to be qualified for the jobs that are available in their community. Sometimes they just need some help getting to those jobs, being connected with those employers and successfully transitioning,” said Sarah Buxton, the workforce director at the Vermont Department of Labor.

A new investigative audit, aimed at identifying ways to improve the program, shows that the programs could be serving more Vermonters.

Up to 7,000 unemployed Vermonters seek resume and interview help annually, and up to 1,000 take advantage of educational grants.

Deputy State Auditor Tim Ashe says 58% of participants made more money or got a new job following the program, while 42% made less money, lost employment or stayed unemployed.

“In a couple of categories that these funds served, more often than not, the individuals were making less money didn’t have a job or remained unemployed than before they started the program,” Ashe said.

He says the Legislature may need to make a few tweaks this winter, including changes to get more people to apply.

Buxton and Ashe agree more could be done on the federal level too to give our program more flexibility, including a waiver to allow more young people aged 16-24 to participate.

“Young people who work are more likely to stay in long-term employed work circumstances than those who don’t begin their work career until after high school or college,” Buxton said.

About 66% of youth participated pre-pandemic. We’re now just below 60%.

Ashe says this new report can be a jumping-off point for decision-makers this legislative session in how better to grow and retain our labor force in the face of workforce woes.

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