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April 29. 2014 10:12PM

U.S. labor secretary touts NH jobs program as model for nation


Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Vice President Joe Biden are seen at a March event in Nashua at which they praised New Hampshire's workforce development programs. (UNION LEADER FILE)

New Hampshire was front and center as U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez announced $150 million in funding for job training programs modeled on Granite State efforts to find work for the long-term unemployed.

In a Monday teleconference with reporters from across the country, Perez alluded to three New Hampshire workers who found new employment opportunities through the state's Return to Work and On the Job Training programs, one of whom he met in a White House workshop in January and two others during a March visit to the state with Vice President Joe Biden.

"New Hampshire has one of the best on-the-job training programs in the country," Perez said. "Ninety-five percent of the graduates have found full-time jobs. The grant program we're announcing today is going to allow other states to replicate this."

The grants will be awarded in amounts ranging from $500,000 to $6 million per state, from the Workplace Investment Act and Dislocated Worker National Reserve Fund.

New Hampshire will certainly be among those applying for funding, said Michael Power, in charge of community outreach at the Office of Workforce Opportunity, a division of the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

On-the-job training programs, with temporary government funding of wages, have been around for years, he said, but in 2010, New Hampshire embarked on a new approach that has evolved into a national model.

The state applied for and received a $2.1 million grant in July 2010, but was not getting as much interest from employers as the program sponsors had hoped.

"Employers felt they were having to do too much paperwork for too little return on investment," said Power. "We had to change things. So a couple of things happened in New Hampshire that made the program very attractive to employers and recognized around the country as a kind of best practice."

The first step was to cut back on the bureaucracy.

"We eliminated a lot of the paperwork on the employer," said Power. "We recognized that government has as much of a responsibility to be customer-friendly as business tries to be. We put the paperwork more on our own job placement specialists — the people who were contacting employers and enlisting them in the program."

Officials then combined the long-standing On the Job Training program with a relatively new program started by Gov. John Lynch called Return to Work.

Return to Work is basically a state-funded try-out for the long-term unemployed. The workers continue to receive unemployment benefits while they work at an approved work site for up to six weeks.

After that, the business can apply to have the employee accepted into the On the Job Training program, subsidized by the state, using the federal grant, for up to four months.

The subsidy varies based on the size of the business. A company with 75 employees or under can get 90 percent wage reimbursement. The largest companies get 50 percent. "Because we are mostly small companies in New Hampshire, our average has been around 81 percent," Power said.

Fitting the profile

The state has reapplied for grants every year since 2010 and has received funding in the $2 million range each time. More than 600 people have gone through the On the Job Training program, with more than half of them starting on Return to Work tryouts.

"These were unemployed people who couldn't get back into the workforce," said Power. "Now 95 percent of them are back."

Their average age is 46; the average hourly wage they are earning is $15.52 a hour.

Gary Locke of Manchester fits the profile. After getting laid off from a local video production company and sending out more than 180 resumes, he remained unemployed for more than a year. He enrolled in the On the Job Training program, where he was matched with a web development company looking to grow.

Locke and his new boss, Ben Bassi, CEO of CommonPlaces Inc., were featured in a video teleconference from the East Room of the White House in March, in a program designed to share New Hampshire's experience with state employment officials from around the country.

"We were having good success with this program, so our regional office of the Department of Labor asked us to show the other states in the Northeast what we were doing," Power said. "Then they came back and asked us to show the people in the mid-Atlantic states what we were doing."

Then on March 25, Perez and Biden came to New Hampshire to see the jobs program firsthand, visiting the XMA Corp. in Manchester and the American Job Center in Nashua.

All of that helped set the stage for Monday's announcement.

"The grants announced today are designed to help implement or expand these programs," wrote David Roberts, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor. "In the case of New Hampshire, where the work is already being done, that means taking it to scale and reaching more people."dsolomon@unionleader.com



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