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Iowa Works virtual access points not working for Iowans

Published: Friday, July 19, 2013 11:20 a.m. CDT

The Newton Daily News remains a stout supporter of Iowa Workforce Development initiatives geared toward getting more Iowans to work, particularly Skilled Iowa, which not only gets Iowans working, but finds them high-paying, skilled jobs.

That being said, we fully support the Newton Public Library Board and library director Sue Padilla’s decision to pull the plug — literally — on the Iowa Works Virtual Access Point program in Newton. At best, this unfunded mandate heaped on the plates of already-cash-strapped public libraries was poorly executed.

A more realistic review would suggest the entire program was poorly planned from its onset.

The Newton Public Library isn’t the first library in Iowa to drop out of the program. In fact, it’s not the only Newton “partner” in the program to drop out: ComputerPro dropped out months ago due to the lack of technical support or training for the ill-running software and because the state never compensated the private business for the time it took to help users navigate the software.

Padilla’s address to the Newton City Council about this matter spells out much of the difficulty:

“[W]e installed the special software provided by Iowa Works called ‘Virtual Access Point’ that was supposed to aid job seekers by giving step-by-step instructions of what they needed to do and which offered live chat and a direct telephone number for questions to be answered immediately.

“An AARP volunteer provided extra assistance in the library to those unfamiliar with using a computer. She often spent two hours or more at a time helping each job seeker. We advertised to our community that job seekers could utilize these services at the library, and it worked for a while. Unfortunately, it is no longer working.

“In June of this year, Iowa Works updated their special software, but with that update, some of the functionality for remote access points was lost. We contacted Iowa Works to report the problems, but no one from Iowa Works responded or came out to resolve them.

“The live chat no longer works, and our volunteer found that she had more success assisting job seekers through the Iowa Works website that is available to anybody with Internet access. All Iowa Works telephone numbers that were listed for acquiring assistance were either specifically to apply for unemployment or for someone whose mailbox was full and no longer accepted messages.

“We did have conversations with Iowa Works managers where we expressed our frustrations and concerns; however, no action to correct the situation followed.  Also in mid-June our AARP volunteer was notified that her time with us would end the first of July.”

Iowa Workforce Development shuttered 39 of 55 Iowa Works offices in 2011 in a phased effort to transition to 16 regional offices with local Virtual Access Points, located mainly at public libraries scattered across the state. The goal was to balance the need for employment services with the state’s need to tow the line on its expenses.

So far, the program appears to be saving money, but at a significant non-financial cost. The level of service provided by Iowa Works today is significantly poorer than it was prior to the change.

Previously, Iowa Works offices provided a wide variety of employment related services, not just to serve as a clearinghouse for job openings across the state. Those looking for new or better employment also could receive training in “soft skills,” such as tips on appearance, how to format a letter of application or a resume and how to prepare for a job interview.

According to those who have recently visited the new regionalized offices — Newtonians and Jasper County residents can benefit from the relative proximity to two: one in Des Moines and another in Marshalltown — the level of service provided is better from the Iowa Workforce Development website than visiting one of the offices in person. That should be the red flag that this plan is no longer viable.

And, after an honest review of the program, one could honestly question if this is really an area where the State of Iowa needs to be involved to the degree that it is today. There are a number of private businesses, such as Jacobson Staffing and Manpower, that provide the same kinds of services (e.g. job placement, “soft skill” training) that Iowa Works used to provide, and they do it at no cost to taxpayers.

Surely there is a way the state could incentivize the establishment of such businesses in at least one community in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Right off the bat, this would create new jobs and provide quality service closer to home for many Iowans.

These businesses have a built-in incentive to get as many unemployed workers back to work as possible, because that’s how they make a profit as a business. They also have a built-in incentive to find the highest-paying job possible for every client who walks in their doors, because their commission is based on a percentage of what the employee is paid.

Logic would suggest this would result in more Iowans working, earning a livable wage and contributing to the state and national tax rolls. It also would suggest this could all be done at no cost to the state’s hardworking existing taxpayers.

Ultimately, shouldn’t that be the goal?

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