Butler was guest speaker at Monday’s regular meeting of the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs committee where employers heard what steps the Georgia Department of Labor was taking to retool the state’s workforce and improve the department’s performance. He outlined an emphasis on fraud reduction, workforce development and efficiency — which has been necessitated by reductions in federal funding.
Chamber President and CEO Joe Frank Harris Jr. opened the meeting with a statement on Bartow County’s economic outlook referring to a recent change in tax credits, which were revised due to improving economic indicators.
“Per capita income in Bartow has gone up, our employment has gone up and the poverty index has improved,” Harris said. “If you look at these employment statistics compared to neighboring counties, instead of being at the end, we’ve got more people employed than anyone around. ... And the thing about these statistics is, we still don’t have the numbers for LakePoint or voestalpine.”
Butler’s first talking point was his office’s highest profile responsibility — the unemployment rate. Although numbers have improved over recent years in communities across the state, Butler shared with guests that he is still working to fix systematic problems in the approval of those applying for unemployment benefits.
“We’re here to put people back to work, not to put people on unemployment,” Butler said. “Unemployment is important, but it’s like insurance. You pay it for your employees. It’s your policy and you pay it just in case the unfortunate happens and people lose their job at no fault of their own. And one thing we’ve found is that a lot of our offices across the state have been pressured to pretty much give unemployment to anyone that walked in and that’s not how the program is designed.
“It’s going to take a while to fix this problem, but we want to make sure it goes only to people that are meant to get it.”
Since much of his audience Monday was business owners, he spoke directly to concerns of the employer. Since the recession began, Federal Unemployment Taxes have increased due to the influx of jobseekers applying for benefits. When the number of unemployed exceeded the unemployment insurance trust fund, the state borrowed federal money. Butler assured those present Monday that the department of labor is working to reduce their tax burden in the next two years.
“We have a very aggressive plan to get that loan paid back,” Butler said. “We should have it paid back by the middle to the end of 2014, and when that happens, you should see your Federal Unemployment Tax decrease somewhat dramatically and hopefully get a little bit of a windfall in 2015.”
To combat escalating costs and reduce fraud, GDOL has eliminated paper checks, moving instead to a paperless system requiring either direct deposit or a debit card. This move eliminated check fraud and saved nearly $1 million in annual expenses.
Butler also encouraged employers to take a role in reporting unemployment fraud. Anyone can report fraud, but employers are asked to do so if an applicant receiving unemployment fails a drug test or refuses to take a drug test required for employment. To report fraud, call the GDOL Office of Unemployment Insurance Integrity at 404-232-3440.
Other initiatives covered Monday included an effort to put veterans back to work. Employers hiring military veterans are now eligible for job tax credits ranging from $2,400 to $9,600.
In the midst of the recession, GDOL conducted studies in north Georgia’s Whitfield County, which once had one of the state’s highest unemployment rates. Speaking with employers during this time, Butler found that there were jobs available, but the area lacked a skilled workforce — the problem, however, extended beyond traditional education models.
“Just out of those five or six employers, there were 175 jobs sitting right there in the room, that’s a lot of jobs — and they were at 13.5 percent unemployment,” Butler said, referring to a focus group held in Dalton. “What we ran into was one thing, they were having a hard time finding the people they needed for the jobs they had open. They were having a problem in two areas, hard skills and soft skills.
“We know how to solve the hard skills problem — we’ve got a fantastic technical college system and university system. So we came up with a new program called Georgia Best and we rolled it out about a year ago in 20 schools. ... Kids aren’t tested, it’s measured by observation by teachers because that’s how we’re graded on soft skills. You don’t take a test on those things at work, your boss grades you every day.”
The program has now expanded to more than 130 schools, including Woodland High. The initiative seeks to teach kids soft skills, such as showing up for work on time, not calling in sick as an excuse, getting along with others in the workplace and other non-academic career skills.
As for hard skills, the experience and know-how to successfully complete a job, Butler answered a question from an audience member regarding the number of jobs available that are going unfilled.
“We’re in an interesting time right now when you look at what’s happening. We’re still coming out of high unemployment, but literally thousands and thousands of jobs are available across the state,” Butler said. “Some of the areas we’re seeing the biggest gaps are skilled trades, industrial electricians, mechanics, especially diesel mechanics, and the list goes on and on. This issue is real and it can affect how you grow, but the good news is that Georgia is not alone. Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina all have the same issue.”
This skills-gap issue is being tackled by various departments across the state, including the Governor’s Office, the University System, the Technical University System and the Education Department. With the utilization of career academies, technical universities and programs such as Go Build Georgia, the state is looking to encourage students to pursue skilled-labor careers, as opposed to traditional four-year degrees.
For more information on the department of labor, visit www.dol.state.ga.us.