Baker wants investment in programs that reach the unemployed


BOSTON — The budget proposal Gov. Charlie Baker plans to file this week will include $5 million aimed at job training and employment opportunities for populations facing higher than average unemployment rates, the governor announced on Monday.

While the state's overall unemployment rate measured at 4.7 percent in December, groups including African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, people with disabilities, Native Americans and recently returned veterans experience unemployment rates ranging from 7 to 12 percent, according to Baker's office.

Building off recommendations from a task force examining these higher rates, the money will seed a new grant program, replicate statewide a Hampden County reentry initiative for former criminal offenders, and boost a trust fund targeted toward job training or education for underemployed and unemployed Massachusetts residents.

"A big part of this is taking a couple things people tried before that seemed to have shown some progress, build on those, create some new stuff along the lines of some of the work that came out of the task force report, and run with it and see what we can learn from it," Baker said, announcing the funding at Year Up Boston's downtown offices.

The $5 million in Baker's fiscal 2017 budget — set to be fully unveiled and filed on Wednesday — will include $2 million for a new Economic Opportunity Fund, which will provide grants to community organizations that partner with businesses to offer job training and hiring opportunities to people facing employment barriers.

Another $2 million will go to the Workforce Competitiveness Trust, which Baker said marks the first time that program will be funded for two consecutive years. Baker said the program, which invests in training unemployed workers for in-demand jobs, has not always received sustained support but is something his administration wants to make "sort of a permanent part of our infrastructure in our approach to managing this stuff."

The final $1 million will be dedicated to statewide reentry and job training programs for former criminal offenders, modeled after a Hampden County effort.

"We're going to try some stuff, OK," Baker said. "We're not exactly sure if the stuff we're going to try is going to work exactly the way we want it to or not, but some of it will."

The governor said the new initiatives will bring about "more hands-on" programming than what is traditionally offered through career centers, with partnerships with community organizations enabling a deeper, "more targeted level of support."

"But again, for folks who've been sort of divorced from the employment community for a while, you've got to expect that that's the way you're going to have to go about doing that if you really want to help pull them back in and give them the opportunity to play in the same sandbox the rest of us have all managed to find our way into," he said. "I think in some respects, this is a new idea that has never been done before. We'll see what we can learn from it. "

The task force also recommended an extension of an initiative that links people with disabilities to job training, education, supportive services and benefits counseling.

During the funding announcement on Monday, Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II said his office would extend the program, which had been scheduled to end in March, for another year.

Walker, who chaired the task force, said that its members had also heard "really heartbreaking stories" from people among the long-term unemployed during the course of their meetings. Though long-term unemployment was not the panel's focus, a "strategic approach" to combat it will be announced in the "next few days," he said.

"We heard that message pretty strongly, and we're going to work on that as well," Walker said.


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