Training Maneuvers

In The Throes Of A Financial Crisis, Will The County Increase The Funding For A Controversial Program?

IS THE PIMA County Interfaith Council's JobPath program an honest attempt to address overwhelming poverty in Pima County? Or is it simply a payoff to a politically powerful religious group?

Last year, PCIC successfully demanded $250,000 each from the city and county governments so they could establish and operate a pilot job training program for the economically disadvantaged. Critics called it a waste of taxpayer money, griping that local pols had been strong-armed by the organization, which is famous for turning out hundreds of people at public meetings in order to intimidate elected officials.

Since that time, criticism of the program has intensified. John Arnold, C.E.O. of Project PPEP, a local social service agency, compares JobPath to a moving bus without a driver. He asks why large sums of taxpayers' money would be given to a group that has no experience with job training.

Arnold also raises a serious allegation against PCIC: Are people enrolled in JobPath being trained for jobs or the shoe-pounding political tactics for which PCIC is famous?

PCIC member Ernie Lujan replies that those enrolled in JobPath are not obligated to attend the group's political rallies. He admits they are informed of the gatherings, but insists they aren't required to participate.

Mary Schuh, citizen watchdog of Pima County's budget, agrees with Arnold's assessment of JobPath. "The program is more political than economic," she says, "and the resources provided haven't produced enough results."

Others disagree. PCIC supporters see the use of approximately $260,000 in the past fiscal year, out of the $500,000 appropriated, as a legitimate experiment in local job training. So far, JobPath has received more than 700 applications and has enrolled almost 120 people in courses, primarily taught at Pima Community College.

The focus of the program is to train and get job interviews for people in six areas where the Tucson business community has expressed a need for more employees: aviation technology, automobile technology, machinists, health care, administrative support and heavy construction. The goal is to place people in jobs which pay between $8 and $10.50 an hour, with benefits and the possibility of career advancement.

Most of the people who have applied so far are single working mothers with two children. They have lived in Tucson more than five years and are among the thousands of Tucsonans stuck in low-wage jobs.

In addition to the job training courses, which can take from four months to two years to complete, JobPath offers mentoring services. PCIC plans to track every enrolled individual for five years. Graduates must also repay the approximately $5,000 annual cost of the program, through community service or a loan-repayment program.

Pima County operates the other major job training program in Tucson for economically disadvantaged individuals. This year that program will spend about $1.3 million and has registered 499 people, 212 of whom are in training and 197 who have been employed. The average wage for these new workers is $7.85 an hour. The cost of providing this training has been $4,500 per person, but that figure is expected to drop.

Herminia Cubillos, director of JobPath, says that by next summer the community should be able to judge the success of her agency's approach to job training. Her own criteria for measuring whether the program has worked: at least 65 percent of those who enrolled in the training courses will be employed in jobs that pay between $8 and $10.50 an hour. She also wants to ensure that employers are satisfied with the quality of preparation JobPath graduates have received.

Citing the depressing statistics that show tens of thousands of people living in poverty in Tucson, City Councilman Steve Leal supports JobPath. Leal says the concept was successfully tested in San Antonio and that the screening and mentoring components of the program make it different from other job-training efforts.

"If everything is fine with the way we've been doing job training in Tucson, why do we have the poverty problems we do?" asks Leal.

Hank Atha, who oversees Pima County's $5.5 million annual job training budget, believes JobPath has some good components. Its mentoring concept, he says, is excellent, and he praises the efforts to reach out to the business community. Additionally, the number of trainees is much better now than it was just one month ago.

But Atha also has some concerns with the program. He disputes the idea -- promoted by JobPath proponents -- that they have affected the county's job training programs. He does say, however, that JobPath influenced the county to obtain funding for high-tech job training, for which it received $225,000 from the city and county governments.

For the current fiscal year, JobPath is seeking $1 million in funding. The city has approved $500,000, but Pima County, with its dire financial situation, hasn't finalized its budget. If JobPath does receive the $1 million, it will have almost as much money as the county's own job training program for the economically disadvantaged.

Both John Arnold and Mary Schuh oppose continuing the program. Arnold points out that PCIC is a "faith-based" organization, arguing that churches have billions of dollars more than local governments. He thinks that PCIC's 50 churches should contribute to funding the program and stop taking tax money. But, as he sees it, in today's society churches are now saying, "We are the state."

Mary Schuh agrees. "Pima County doesn't have the money for social experiments," says Schuh, who argues that separation of church and state should preclude public funding of PCIC programs.

Others, however, think that governments can get more bang for the buck by having faith-based organizations operate social-service programs instead of high-paid bureaucrats.

It appears likely that, despite the county's enormous financial troubles, the Board of Supervisors will increase the program's funding. While other outside agencies, like the Greater Tucson Economic Council, have to grovel for county funds, more money for JobPath seems secure.

Herminia Cubillos of JobPath supports that move. "The other way of doing job training wasn't working," she says. "How can the community not afford to test if $1 million spent on 200 people isn't more cost effective than the other options?"