Artee Williams is one of just a few top state officials at the center of reacting to the aftermath of a national recession that has caused Arkansas’ jobless rate to be above 7% for 39 consecutive months and the number of unemployed to top 100,000 for 38 straight months.
Williams, director of the Department of Workforce Services (DWS), was appointed to the job during March 2004 when the state’s economy was purring on all cylinders and the unemployment rate was 5.7%.
Some may, with apologies to Haggard, wonder if the good times are really over for good, but Williams is an optimist — an understandable outlook considering that the jobless rate has been below 8% for six straight months and the number of unemployed is poised to drop below 100,000.
“Clearly we’re seeing fewer mass layoffs. And you recall during the recession we just had multiple layoff announcements. Fortunately those have slowed and the number of people effected has declined somewhat,” Williams explained. “Again, smaller layoffs, 10, 20, 30, 50 employees effected versus hundreds just two years go. We still have them, but not as impactful.”
UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE DEBT
What has been impactful is the more than $343 million in debt Arkansas accumulated through federal government advances to help pay unemployment benefits. The DWS is a “hybrid” organization in that it is a state agency that collects and disburses federal money and money collected from federally-imposed unemployment taxes. At the height of the recession, Arkansas’ unemployment trust fund was depleted, and the U.S. Labor Department’s “Title 12” program loaned DWS the money to pay unemployment benefits.
As of June 4, the amount owed by the state was $310.742 million. Williams said the state is scheduled to pay about $40 million in principal and interest payments in September. He and other state officials estimate the debt will be paid off by or during 2015.
“We don’t anticipate, unless there is some significant recession, we don’t anticipate having to borrow any more money. ... Anything could change that, but for right now we don’t foresee a need to apply for additional Title 12 advances,” Williams said.
Critics of the labor numbers suggest the size of the overall workforce does not reflect the number of people who are eligible to work. With a jobless recovery following a national recession of 2008 and 2009, there is the possibility that many people have quit looking for work, have part-time work or are underemployed.
Williams wouldn’t be drawn into a debate over methodology.
“I can’t validate that,” Williams said when asked about concerns the workforce size does not reflect reality. “We are on the ground, and, as you probably know, all of our workforce centers are overrun every day with people looking for work, or looking for job training opportunities. ... We’ve not seen any decrease in the number of people actively engaging the process.”
Part of that process includes helping people transition from a lost job to a new job. Since January 2008, the DWS has award 39,415 Career Readiness Certificates (CRC). The certificates indicate to potential employers that a person has completed a federally funded retraining program.
“What we are seeing is more employers indicating a preference for the CRC as part of their pre-employment process. And those numbers continue to grow, and that’s a good program for Arkansas that really helps people add a credential to their resume,” Williams said.
He said the CRC program has also helped residents caught up in the almost 36,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the past five years. Also helping is the “Transferrable Occupational Relationship Quotient” program, or TORQ, for short.
“It’s a web-based assessment, an occupational assessment that can look at a person’s current skill set and show where that skill set may be transferable to other jobs,” Williams said.
CRC and TORQ allows some people to avoid having to file for unemployment, and be able to transition from one job to the next without financial disruption.
Although legally unable to provide a company name, Williams said the department recently worked with 48 employees in a Little Rock company slated for closure. The company allowed the state to work with the employees before the closure. When the plant closed, 30 of the 48 had new jobs.
THE RIGHT SKILLS
Despite the slow growth in the job market there are available jobs for those with the right skills, Williams asserts.
Job demand is growing, according to Williams, in the health care sector, education, information technology, and in the trucking industry. The DWS has worked with the trucking sector — facing a shortage of drivers — on a training program that is free to students and the companies.
“It’s not the most attractive job,” Williams said of truck driving, “but they pay, you know, almost $40,000 a year.”
A more attractive job is nursing. The DWS received in February a $5 million federal grant for a program — designed by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences with approval required by the Arkansas Nursing Board — to train 1,500 nurses during a four-year period.
Williams noted: “There is a significant pent-up need to move CNAs and LPNs to Registered Nurse status. The problem is there is a shortage of faculty and a shortage of preceptors for clinical training. So the real crux of this grant will be to not pay for tuition and books, but to take the current folks that are in the nursing profession and the CNA level and at the LPN level and move them up the chain.”
The program also is geared toward keeping as many of the Arkansas-trained nurses as possible in Arkansas.
FRAUD, DRUG TESTING
As to efforts to reduce fraud and waste, Williams said the agency uses a “modern” web-based computer system that checks for errors on reports, and then sends such errors to investigators who look closely to see what kind of mistake is made.
“We have probably the most sophisticated detection system in the country. It’s a back-end process, obviously, after the claim has been filed. I don’t know if anybody has a system that can prevent it on the front end, because that’s a human entering data on a form either correctly or incorrectly. ... Sometimes the fraud is simply because the person made a mistake or the employer made a mistake, so when you say ‘fraud,’ you have to be careful because it’s not always intentional,” Williams said.
And as to a growing movement among states to drug test people who receive state or federal assistance, Williams said U.S. Labor Department regulations dictate what Arkansas can do in that area.
“We would have to see the legislation, know what it says, but also have the U.S. Labor look at it to make sure it didn’t conflict with federal statutes and the cooperative agreement we have with the Feds to run a state UI program,” he said.