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Published: Monday, 6/9/2003

Job investment is commissioners' priority

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Workforce investment is kind of like a dating service that links workers with employers.

But who runs the dating service and where the prospective suitors should meet have become hot political topics in Lucas County government.

The most immediate issue is whether the county commissioners will allow the Workforce Policy Board, a body made up mostly of local business leaders and union officials, to be more than just an advisory panel.

A preliminary consultant's report delivered to the commissioners last week recommends one option that would grant the policy board the power to hire its own executive director and have more financial authority.

The commissioners have to decide whether to cede power to the advisory board or keep control of a federal program set up to train workers.

Bill Brennan, chairman of the policy board, said the volunteer board members who are frustrated by the lack of progress think wresting the program from county government will make it more efficient.

“It will allow us to make decisions more quickly,” Mr. Brennan said. “Government does not make decisions quickly. The whole purpose of [the Workforce Investment Act] is to have more business involvement.”

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was designed to train workers to meet the labor needs of employers. Like a dating service, employers spell out what they're looking for, and workers are trained for those jobs. The county's workforce investment agency is supposed to bring them together, and everyone goes away happy.

But workforce investment hasn't had a happy history in Lucas County.

Tom Herman, a Workforce Policy Board member and former chairman, said enthusiasm for the board's mission has waned because it has received so little attention.

“I think [there's been frustration] for nothing more than a lack of progress and direction,” he said. “But the overall frustration is that there's still an opportunity that exists in northwest Ohio, and no one's been willing to take that risk and say, `Let's just do it.'”

The issue may be getting attention now because of political trouble created last year when the state pulled back about $550,000 in unspent funds that were to be used to help dislocated workers.

It embarrassed the commissioners and became an issue in the race between Commissioner Sandy Isenberg and Maggie Thurber, who went on to win the election.

Interest in workforce investment changed with Ms. Thurber's election and Tina Skeldon Wozniak's appointment to replace Bill Copeland, who retired in December. Suddenly, Harry Barlos, president of the commissioners, was not the only commissioner pushing to make the issue a priority.

“I think we have the ears of all the commissioners now,” Mr. Brennan said. “We just want to get this thing moving. Volunteers can only take a project so far.”

Mr. Barlos hasn't ruled out giving the policy board more control, but he's concerned about letting the program be controlled by people who aren't directly accountable to the commissioners. “We're the responsible entity if anything goes wrong - not volunteers on the board, not the executive director,” he said.

Giving the Workforce Policy Board more power would mean leaving the Ohio Option, the state's version of workforce investment. That would free it from having to get state approval for things like how many one-stop locations would be built and where they'll be, according the consultant's draft report.

Ms. Wozniak said she is “open-minded” to the idea of leaving the Ohio Option, but wants to spend more time examining the issue.

“What I like about leaving the Ohio Option is that we would have the self-control of our own entity,” she said.

Ms. Thurber said she's been in favor of having Lucas County leave the Ohio Option since she took office. Seeing the consultant's report has solidified that opinion.

“It gives the [Workforce Policy Board] not only the responsibility but the authority to do the things they thought they should be doing all along,” she said.

Ms. Thurber thinks workforce investment should be the county's top priority, even though the county receives only $4 million to $5 million a year.

“The No. 1 reason now for [businesses] relocating is the availability of a skilled workforce,” she said. “I think your workforce development is the foundation upon which your economic development will be built.”



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