WASHINGTON — After working for seven years as a receptionist, Teresa Sawyer knew how to use a typewriter and a photocopier when she got laid off in 2008, but she knew nothing about computers.
Sawyer, 60, of Gig Harbor, Wash., sent out hundreds of resumes but didn't get a single response, leading her to conclude that she was unemployable. But with a little help from a federal job-training program, Sawyer went back to school to learn how to be a medical office professional.
After receiving a two-year associate in applied science degree from Tacoma Community College this month, she has no fears of landing a job. "None at all, not with the skill that I have. ... I never dreamed I would do this," she said.
Despite their popularity with many members of Congress and their constituents, however, job-training programs have come under increased scrutiny this year on Capitol Hill, and the attention is about to intensify.
Earlier this year, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to eliminate funding for one year for the Workforce Investment Act, the federal law that governs workforce training. But the Democratic-led Senate killed the plan, leading to an eventual compromise that still cut a sizable amount — $870 million — from job-training money.
Now a bipartisan group of senators is proposing to overhaul and reauthorize the 13-year-old law. They argue that the federal government needs to do more to connect unemployed workers with businesses that complain they can't find enough properly skilled employees.
"This bill will help bridge the gap between the workers who want to work and the businesses that are having trouble finding the skilled employees they need to fill open positions," said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, one of the senators who are leading the effort.
Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, said Congress also needed to change the law as a way to help fix a glaring problem: Of the 50 million jobs expected to be created by 2018, 30 million will require postsecondary training, and the U.S. is expected to fall short by about 3 million workers.
The subcommittee is expected to vote Wednesday on Murray's legislation. Her bill doesn't include any proposed funding. That debate would come later.
But even if the measure passes the Senate, it could face a tougher test in the Republican-led House.
The Government Accountability Office handed critics new ammunition in April, issuing a report that criticized federal job-training programs for "fragmentation, overlap and potential duplication." The report said members of Congress needed to receive better information about the performance of the programs to address the shortcomings.
Sawyer said she decided to get a job when she turned 50 and the last of her four children, who now range in age from 25 to 31, headed off to college. She said that, despite her lack of skills, she got lucky when a friend who ran a window manufacturing business offered her a job as a receptionist. It lasted until the economy soured and she was let go.
"I honestly didn't know what to do," said Sawyer, whose husband also is unemployed after losing his job as a shop foreman last year. "I had never been in that position before. I was devastated. ... I was scared to death."
Sawyer found help at WorkForce Central in Tacoma, which oversees federal job-training money for Pierce County. She was one of 500 people who received vouchers for occupational training at local community or technical colleges last year.
But Linda Nguyen, the chief executive officer of WorkForce Central, said many new applicants were getting turned away because of budget cuts.
Federal aid, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of the budget at WorkForce Central, has declined by nearly 40 percent since 2005, going from $7.2 million to $4.4 million, Nguyen said. At the same time, the maximum grant for a student declined from $8,000 to $3,000, she said.
"Every year, they keep chopping, chopping, chopping, and we're just being stripped away," Nguyen said. "Our unemployment rate — if you round up — is almost 10 percent right now. And currently we have about 6,500 folks who have exhausted unemployment insurance, and that number continues to grow every week. Demand isn't going away, but the services are dwindling."
Washington state Rep. Norm Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the funding situation could worsen in 2012. So far, he said, $18 billion has been trimmed from the president's request in next year's budget for spending on health and human services, including the Labor Department, which oversees job-training programs.
"Everything is going to get hurt, so I'm very worried about this," Dicks said. "Job training is absolutely critical. The biggest problem we've got is educating our people and giving them good training so they can be more productive. ... It's a big issue, and we're going to have to work hard in the appropriations process. This is another example of not investing in things."
Sawyer, who calls herself a conservative, said she'd never applied for any government services before going to WorkForce Central.
With confidence now, she said she was "a changed person," ready to land "a very good job."
"I am going to work in a medical office," she said. "It could be in a hospital, or it could be in a doctor's office. ... I'm excited because they took a person that was unemployable — yet I love working and being active — and they were able to take me to a place at 60 years old where I'm highly employable."
Sawyer, who was honored for her academic achievements at the community college, said the help she received was no handout.
"It was more of a hand-up when they worked with me. ... I just hope other people have the opportunity I was given," she said.
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