Friday, August 18, 2006

Todd Elliott Koger's Op-Ed Article: A missed opportunity

So it is up to you (parents and teachers) to refer your unemployed and disadvantaged youth to the appropriate offices, to guarantee that their applications are completed properly and to follow-up with the agency to ensure that the application was properly processed.

A missed opportunity.

The following is an Op-Ed article written by Todd Elliott Koger and featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Just a few years ago when I was searching for a way to help finance my college education, I discovered the Summer Youth Employment and Training program, which provided the opportunity to earn an income over the summer months while gaining valuable work experience.

At $4 an hour, I was earning more money than some of my older siblings. I was able to give a little money back to my struggling parent, who had sacrificed so much over the years to rear a family of 10. I wasn't a Michael Jackson or an Eddie Murphy. I couldn't remove the family from the inner-city. But I could now provide for myself and I took one more burden off my parent's back.

Now I am a college graduate. In fact, I am a law student. But more ironically, as an employment and training planner, I developed the 1989 SYETP Plan for Allegheny County. Unfortunately, I didn't make the final decisions.

Yes, this year, as in the last couple of years, the number of participants and the number of possible work hours will be reduced (from an estimate 2,200 participants in 1988 to a planned 1,650 participants in 1989, and from 40 possible work hours for eight weeks when I participated to only 28 hours of work for six weeks in 1989).

Management will cry about funds having been cut. The contracted program operator will cry, "Not as many students applied." And those poor, unemployed and disadvantaged students will be left again with a summer of idle time -- time that offers opportunities to be lured into drugs, crime, etc.

Management will be correct. Job-training funds have been reduced with the improvement of the local economy. And the minimum-wage increase has created another fiscal obstacle. However, aren't we funding the development of professionals? Isn't it our responsibility to tap other available funding sources when the need continues?

But that's too logical for Allegheny County. We knew for some time not that SYETP funds were going to be reduced, but we sat content for months with out traditional alternative of cutting the number of participants and possible working hours.

And maybe the program operators are right with their usual argument that youth are no longer interested in the SYETP because of the reduced number of working hours. But the bottom line is that the unemployed, disadvantaged youth is once again the victim, for the SYETP offers valuable supplemental training that normal private-sector employment neglects.

Not only does the SYETP provide opportunity to earn a summer income and gain valuable work experience, but it also remediates deficiencies in basic skills (reading and math), provides labor-market information and the opportunity for exploration of various occupations. Thus the students forced to seek jobs in the private sector because they can work more hours and make more money sacrifice the opportunity to facilitate their other needs through provisions of the SYETP.

Aren't we paying the program operator to implement the program in the most effective manner? Isn't it more prudent to cut costs in areas that don't result in a direct reduction of service -- administrative costs? We pay SYETP officials extremely well for 12 months to plan a program that lasts approximately six weeks. Yes, there are many tasks to be completed during this planning period, but the program design does not change that drastically from year to year. Is 12 months of planning really necessary? If so, isn't it reasonable to expect the program operator to use some of the time developing private funding sources to guarantee maximum servicing?

Allegheny County recently received $160,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to implement a new SYETP demonstration. The new component -- Summer Training Employment Program (STEP) -- will provide the county an opportunity to serve 100 of the SYETP participants with more intense remediation, life skills opportunities training and school support activities. However, instead of designing the STEP demonstration in a manner sufficient to offset 1989 SYETP funding reductions, the county's model was excessively staffed, fiscally inefficient and not appropriately situated to serve those most in need.

Another example of the programmatic flaws of the STEP design is the rejection of a plan to implement the project at one central site. Having one central site would have reduced the number of administrators, the salary expense, travel cost and training-conferences cost. (There are required training conferences in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; having excessive staff increases the cost of having them trained.)

You the public can demand more efficient and effective servicing. You can prevent the yearly excuse that our youth are no longer interested -- especially our disadvantaged college students. We pay SYETP officials extremely well to operate this program, but they are not producing the appropriate numbers, and no one is going to force them to either.

Actually, other youth JTPA programs operated by the county use the same excuse -- lack of interest. One youth program in particular -- ironically, it is operated by the same agency that manages the SYETP -- has a full-time paid recruiter and still manages to use that excuse.

So, it is up to you (parents and teachers) to refer your unemployed and disadvantaged youth to the appropriate offices, to guarantee that their applications are completed properly and to follow-up with the agency to ensure that the application was properly processed. Don't give SYETP officials an excuse this year. While your children sit idle each summer, the salaries of those officials continue to increase that much more. Let's give today's youth the same opportunity I had.