As White House mulls expanding a Georgia jobs program, there are doubts about its national impact

As part of its package of job creation proposals to be released next month, the Obama administration is said to be looking closely at a Georgia program that trains the unemployed for new jobs with potential employers. But based on Georgia's experience, the effect the program would have on a national level is very much open to question -- and labor advocates worry that it allows employers to exploit those willing to work for free.

The program, Georgia Works, allows unemployed workers to continue to collect jobless benefits while training for jobs with companies. Workers also receive a small stipend to cover transportation and other expenses. After eight weeks, the employer can choose to hire the worker, or not. Participation in the program is voluntary, for workers and for employers.

President Obama last week praised the program, which has been used as a model by several other states. "You're essentially earning a salary and getting your foot in the door into that company," he said.

Labor experts agree that the concept--placing the jobless with potential employers--is right on target. "If you can get people placed with private employers for a training position of some kind, it is almost certainly the most effective approach, on a person by person basis, in terms of boosting earnings and getting them into jobs that they tend to hang on to," Gary Burtless, a former Labor Department economist now at the Brookings Institution, told The Lookout.

Georgia says that more than 60 percent of the workers who completed the program ultimately found work--with 24 percent of the workers hired by the employer who trained them.

But in terms of volume, Georgia Works is less impressive. Since it was launched in 2003, 23,084 people have completed the program. That means that in a state with a population of nearly 9.7 million, only around 1,725 workers a year who participate in the program found jobs, and only around 700 of those with the employer who trained them.

To those who worry about reducing the nationwide jobless total--currently at nearly 14 million--that doesn't even get close to the size of the challenge.

Burtless called that "a drop in the Mobile Bay."

"It's a fine policy," he added. "It's just a policy without much heft."

At 10.1 percent, Georiga's unemployment rate remains well above the national average.

Burtless said the chances of the program getting a better return when brought to the national level are slim, because to work well, it requires talented and well-connected job placement officers who are capable of placing the unemployed with participating companies.

"Talented headhunters don't work for government employment services these days," Burtless said. "They're not placing the long-term unemployed."

The program is said to be just one possible part of a larger package of job-creation ideas the administration will propose. So the argument that it won't do enough on its own doesn't end the debate.

But concerns about volume aside, some critics say the program enables employers to exploit workers.

"This is a way that companies circumvent hiring people," Richard Ray, the president of the Georgia chapter of the AFL-CIO, told The Lookout.

Ray said from what his organization has heard, the emphasis is more on work than training. "In most cases we found out that the jobs did not require a lot of training," Ray said, citing assembly line work as an example. "After a couple hours training, they could do the work."

And even the workers that do end up getting hired for paid jobs, Ray argued, are simply taking positions that would have existed in any case. "The jobs that I've been told they're getting -- somebody would have got those jobs anyway," he said.

Some supporters of Georgia Works see it as part of a strategy to end the system of jobless benefits as we know it. The program has been championed by the American Institute for Full Employment, an Oregon-based group that advocates converting jobless benefits into wage subsidies for companies.

Michael Thurmond, the former state labor commissioner who launched Georgia Works in 2003, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year that he sees it as a "re-envisioning of the 20th-century program [of unemployment benefits] for a 21st-century problem."

"It's self-empowerment," Thurmond, who last year ran unsuccessfully for the Senate as a Republican, added. "You can sit around and wait for Washington or the Federal Reserve or the Georgia Legislature to create a job for you, or you can create one for yourself. You've got to rescue yourself."