Monday, August 25, 2014

Atlanta jobs agency gets full-time boss, will immediately start reforms recommended by scathing report

Posted By on Mon, Aug 25, 2014 at 12:41 PM

Michael T. Sterling
The Atlanta Workforce Development Agency has embodied dysfunctional and ineffective government for the past decade. On the heels of the ouster of its longtime executive director amid allegations of poor management, city officials are finally looking at how to right the troubled city agency.

On the same day that a scathing city-commissioned report was released, Mayor Kasim Reed named AWDA’s interim director, Michael Sterling, as the agency’s full-time executive director. Reed last Friday discussed the report and announced Sterling’s promotion at an Aug. 22 event with U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez at the Loudermilk Center. The mayor’s office tells Creative Loafing that Sterling will immediately carry out the reforms.

Deborah Lum, the agency’s previous executive director for 11 years, last May resigned following a scathing AJC investigation. Under her guidance, the department recklessly wasted hundreds of thousands of federal stimulus dollars on “phantom workers and token or nonexistent training,” according to the newspaper’s investigation.

The City Hall-commissioned report proclaims “there is no ‘workforce system’ in Atlanta today.” It calls for various reforms to create a “continuous talent pipeline” to attract well-paying jobs to the city.

“Today’s competitive global economy demands a prepared and well-trained workforce,” Reed says in the report. “This plan gives us a roadmap to maximize existing opportunities and expand efforts to develop a 21st century workforce.”

The city commissioned the study to better “align” its economic development and workforce development strategies. Maher & Maher, the firm that conducted the study, says it’s common nationwide for such efforts to be under-coordinated. Atlanta is a prime example.

“There is no perceivable service philosophy, principles or framework” to AWDA’s programs, and little strategic thinking or use of partnerships, the report says.

According to the report, the agency has a “myopic focus” on meeting federal performance standards so it will “look good” to funders, rather than learning about local customer needs and responding in an appropriate manner. Too much effort has been placed on helping people find first-time jobs, rather than on crafting a career progression.

In one instance, the report says, AWDA “serves very few out-of-school youth and almost no drop outs, in spite of a persistently high drop-out rate in the city.” While abstractly meeting federal guidelines, in reality the AWDA’s programming “has not served the youth most in need, but rather those most likely to succeed.”

Both AWDA and its board of directors have a “vacuum in leadership,” the report says. AWDA staff “guide the Board, rather than the other way around,” and most board members “are clearly not fully engaged,” the report says.

There are regional issues, too. ADWA is one of five similar metro Atlanta programs funded by the federal Workforce Investment Act. None of those agencies share industry or employer information. The report calls for the City of Atlanta to “spearhead” the creation of a real-time collaboration among the agencies. It also calls for better coordination with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Atlanta Committee for Progress, Invest Atlanta, Georgia Department of Labor, Atlanta Public Schools, and other local educational institutions.

“Our top priority is creating an agency that will provide real and meaningful results for the businesses and job seekers in our City and our region,” Sterling said in a statement.

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