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Communication -- between employers and their representatives and between state and federal agencies -- is the key to getting people back to work, said Jane Oates, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Assistant Secretary for Employment & Training, at Governing's Outlook in the States and Localities conference today.
“We can't, from inside the beltway, have a one-size-fits-all” solution to unemployment, she said. That’s why the Labor Department actively engages states, localities and labor organizations in conversation and listens to what they have to say as much as they tell them how to attract businesses.
The places with the best job outlook are those that have direct communication with their employers, according to Oates. “Every time I go to a local area, businesses are complaining about how hard it is to build, to get through the processes,” Oates said. The municipalities with the strongest job markets are those with “local elected officials who have made it someone's responsibility to outreach to businesses to help them navigate regulations.”
Oates also pointed to incubators -- like those in Boston set up by Mayor Thomas Menino -- as something all localities should be doing to attract businesses. Incubators, she said, allow small businesses to get the information and equipment they need without the cost of both weighing them down.
Oates also stressed the need to reform unemployment insurance, reauthorize the 1998 federal Workforce Investment Act (which funds state and local job-training efforts), and hold the stakeholders that carry out job training (such as community colleges) accountable for the federal and state dollars they receive.
Until recently, community colleges used federal grants to implement job-training programs; and when the grant ended, so did the programs. Now, the feds have provisions in place so that community colleges can use grants for equipment and capacity building -- “not just tuition money,” Oates said.
In line with her focus on listening, Oates listened to a conference attendee's concern that slow federal approval of energy-related products and processes, such as natural gas, is keeping jobs from being created. Oates urged the participant to take up the issue with the appropriate agency -- which isn't hers.