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Kandiyohi County, Minn., and Workforce Center pull together to put people back to work

Pat Jacobs, director of the Workforce Center in Willmar, talks to a client Thursday in her office at the Health and Human Services Building in Willmar. The county and the Workforce Center are working hand-in-hand to offer those out of work the skills and resources they need to rejoin the workforce. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — The breadwinner for a family of five, who had lost his job of 32 years, had no choice but to seek and accept public assistance to pay the family’s bills.

After two months of retraining with the Workforce Center in Willmar he found a new job and stopped getting assistance from the Minnesota Family Investment Program.

“It was a happy ending,” said Pat Jacobs, director of the state Workforce Center in Willmar, during a report Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

Another client who reluctantly accepted assistance through the Diversionary Work Program and got a full-time and a part-time job wrote a letter praising the partnership between the county and Workforce Center that she said helps people “get out of the system.”

The Diversionary Work Program is a short-term program that requires a work plan before receiving benefits to help meet basic living needs.

While not every client has a success story or is able to quickly end assistance and get back to work, most clients do, said Jacobs.

“People do not sit on welfare endlessly,” said Jacobs, in an interview.

There is a five-year limit for an individual to receive assistance through the Minnesota Family Investment Program but the average length of time people use public assistance is 30 months.

“A majority of people are using it as intended. They’re getting help when they need it, getting work and getting off assistance,” said Jacobs, who said the primary challenges to getting a job are language barriers and lack of education. She said — at a minimum — a high school diploma or GED is “critical to long-term success in the labor market.”

Part of the success in Kandiyohi County is because of the good working relationship between the county and the Workforce Center, said Jacobs.

Operated by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, WorkForce Centers are tasked with helping job seekers find employment, helping businesses find workers, and helping anyone at any stage explore and plan careers. There are nearly 50 WorkForce Centers statewide, according to the DEED website.

Counties are required to have partnerships with job service agencies as part of federal and state funding.

Individuals who receive financial assistance are referred to the Workforce Center for skills assessment, training, job search skills and job placement.

Although the job service link is required in each county, Jacobs said the partnership in Kandiyohi County is “remarkable” and “not that way in other counties.”

Having the county family services department in the same building as the Workforce Center is a big asset, said Jacobs. Good staff on both sides also helps.

“It’s a priority to keep the communication open and really make it work on behalf of the participants,” said Jacobs. “The bottom line is we’re trying to serve people the best we can.”

Providing those partnership services may be a little tougher in 2013, however, because of cuts in federal and state funding.

In 2012, the contract between the county and the Workforce Center included funding of $662,000.

Next year that will be cut by $83,000 even though there are 45 more families using the Minnesota Family Investment Program and Diversionary Work Program now compared to the same time a year ago.

“It’s a significant cut,” said Jacobs, adding that Workforce Center counselors already have bigger caseloads than they’ve ever had before. “All service providers are experiencing this and it’s going to be a challenge as we move ahead.”

If there hadn’t been such good success with getting people back to work, the financial cuts could have been even worse.

The state withholds 5 percent of the funding as an incentive for the counties and job services in two areas: the participation rate that looks at the percentage of people receiving assistance who are working and the self-support index that looks at the percentage of people working one, two and three years after participating in the programs.

Kandiyohi County met both standards and was awarded a $33,000 bonus that’s put back into providing programs.

The agencies have already met those goals for the first quarter of the new fiscal year and Jacobs said it will be a “priority” to continue to meet the goals because it means clients are succeeding and the county is getting full funding.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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