Tag Archives: WIA

Job Training Grants are the Church of What’s Happening Now: State of the Union and CA Career Pathways

Although I gave up watching State of the Union speeches about 20 years ago—they’re always boring and bombastic—this year’s rendition included a hearty endorsement of federal job training efforts. President Obama observed that, with more than 30 existing discretionary federal job training programs, the subject is bit confusing, and he detailed Uncle Joe Biden to study the matter with an aim toward simplifying things.

Call me cynical, but I have zero confidence that our VP can or will simplify job training programs. I wrote my first job training proposal 40 years ago, when I worked for Mayor Bradley shortly after arriving from the Great Frozen North. The proposal was for the fed’s first, and perhaps best, general purpose* job training program: the late Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program.

Unlike later federal efforts, CETA actually provided funding for public agencies and nonprofits to train and hire the unemployed. Although I never had a CETA job, I knew lots of people—most of them liberal arts grads like me—who got their career start with CETA. Since CETA was fairly successful, Congress, of course, got rid of it, replacing CETA with the Job Training and Partnership Act (JTPA) in 1982. JTPA was a definite step backwards, as it created a whole ecosystem of local and regional public/private boards around the country to pass out JTPA funds, which quickly became boondoggles. The idea of directly funding jobs was lost and replaced with the goal of “job development.”

Job development is like telling a teenager outside of a school dance that there are girls inside somewhere, while CETA provided the unemployed with a date with a “sure thing.” Big difference.

JTPA was such a fiasco that it was replaced with the even more convoluted and confusing Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. Despite its many flaws and limited virtues, WIA remains the primary federal job training funding vehicle. Given President Obama’s SOTU remarks and an ever-increasing pool of Americans who have dropped out of the workforce, WIA has been an obvious failure.

To get biblical, CETA begat JTPA, which begat WIA. There are also dozens of other federal job training programs. Almost every federal grant program that aims to help, among others, any at-risk child over the age of 12, young adults, women, ex-offenders and garden-variety adults, includes some aspect of job readiness and/or vocational skills training, either directly or by referral.

As a grant writer, I’m all for a plethora of job training programs. Why have 30 job training programs when 40 will do? A Wall Street Journal editorial this morning concludes that there are 47 federal job training programs, not 30, as President seems to think. My guess is that when Uncle Joe starts looking through the federal grant attic, he’ll find more than 47. The WSJ points out correctly that not a single job training program measures success by work workers hired. This is what makes job training grant proposals so much fun to write and why agencies should make every effort to get job training grants: there’s no way to evaluate success! And there’s less impetus to do so.

The states are also in the job training biz big time. For example, California just issued a RFP for an entirely new program, the California Career Pathways Trust, which has $247 million in precious state funds up for grabs. (California is also spending $60 billion on a so-called high speed rail system, so perhaps the Golden State is rolling in dough.)

Job training grants are ubiquitous and, no matter what Uncle Joe’s task force discovers or attempts to report, smart nonprofits, school districts and other public agencies will answer the challenge and apply for the huge grants that are and will be available in the job training trough in the coming months and years. As we’ve written about before, grant seeking organizations have to learn how to surf the grant waves. To quote Flip Wilson, job training grants are the church of what’s happening now.


* Federal jobs programs go all the way back to the Depression-era WPA, which focused on jobs, not training. By the time of the Great Society in 1965, the grant pendulum had swung to job training with the creation of Job Corps, which is still among the living. This is fairly amazing, since Job Corps spends about $79,000 per trainee to prepare 16 – 24 year olds for a minimum wage job. It is cheaper to send a kid to the University of Chicago than to Job Corps. If the “16 – 24” age sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same age range for our old pal YouthBuild. Actually, one can think of YouthBuild as Job Corps Lite, since it’s more or less the same program without a residential living component.

Program Officer Blues: What To Do When The RFP Is Ambiguous, Contradictory, Incoherent, or All Three

When you find an ambiguity or outright contradiction in an RFP, it’s time to contact the Program Officer, whose phone number and e-mail address is almost always stashed somewhere in the RFP. The big problem with contacting a Program Officer is simple: you can’t trust what she or he tells you. The formal RFP—particularly if published in the Federal Register and/or Grants.gov—takes precedence over anything the Program Officer tells you. Unless you’re given a specific reference to instructions in the RFP, you can’t safely rely on advice given by a Program Officer. This is the primary reason we see no point in attending bidders’ conferences, or, more likely these days, watching “webinars” about RFPs. Anything said in those forums that isn’t backed by the RFP, program guidelines, and/or the underlying section of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) means jack.

And that’s assuming you even can get advice from Program Officers. A client recently wanted more detail about a slightly ambiguous outcome requirement in the Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood proposal we were writing, so we advised her to contact Tanya Howell, the ACF staffer assigned to the program. Our client asked two questions, and in both cases Ms. Howell began by responding with the same helpful sentence: “Applicants should use their best judgment in determining whether they are able to meet the requirements contained in the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), whether they are able to develop an application they believe to be responsive to the FOA and in designing and writing their applications.”

“Applicants should use their best judgment” is another way of saying, “I have no idea, do what you want, and if the reviewer dings you don’t come back and blame me.” Her second sentence, in both cases, said that the measures in question were “at the discretion of the applicant.” This kind of non-answer answer that leaves the applicant in the dark and is only marginally more helpful than no answer at all. It also smacks of the Program Officer simply preparing a template response to questions and applying the template in order to minimize her own need to work.

Here’s another weird example. We recently completed a WIA job training proposal for a large nonprofit in Southern California. The RFP was issued by the Workforce Investment Board (WIB) for a particular jurisdiction, and the RFP specified that applicants must demonstrate a written collaboration with Workforce Sector Intermediaries. We’d never seen this term before; it was not defined in the RFP and a Google search returned us to the RFP. Since the client is already a WIA grantee, we had our client contact call their Program Officer. The Program Officer also did not know what was meant by Workforce Sector Intermediaries and could not get an answer from her supervisors. In other words, nobody at the WIB knew what was the meaning of a requirement specified in their own RFP.

Still, if you can find a contradiction in an RFP, you can sometimes get a correction issued. We’ve found contradictions at least a dozen times over the years, and sometimes we’ll point them out to Program Officers and get the RFP amended. That’s the only real way you can trust that your interpretation is correct, instead of an example of your “discretion” that might cause you to lose points. Thus, despite the depressing anecdotes above, you should pose your conundrum to the Program Officer.

Clients will also ask us about possible ambiguities, and we give the best answers we can. But clients regularly ask us questions about RFPs that we can’t answer. It’s not that we’re opposed to answering questions, of course—but the questions themselves sometimes can’t be answered by the RFP. At that point, it’s time to call or write the Program Officer and hope for the best.

Before you do, however, you should read the RFP and any associated guidance or CFR reference as closely as possible. That means looking at every single section that could have a bearing on your question. If you’re reading an RFP, you’re basically performing the same exercise that (good) English professors do to novels, poems, drama, and short stories, or that lawyers do to legislation and court decisions: close reading. You can find lots of “how to” guides for close reading from Google, or you can look at one of the original textbooks about close reading, Understanding Fiction. But close reading at its most basic entails looking at every single word in relation to other words and ascertaining how it forms meaning, how meanings of a text change, and what meanings can be interpreted from it. For example, if you were close reading this passage, you might look at the phrase “at its most basic” in the preceding sentence and say, “What about its ‘least’ basic? What do advanced forms of close reading entail?” and so forth.

In Umberto Eco’s Reflections on The Name of the Rose, he says that a novel is “a machine for generating interpretations.” The same is true of other kinds of texts, like RFPs, and your job in close reading is to generate the interpretations to the best of your abilities. Our skills at doing this are, of course, very finely honed, but even those finely honed skills can’t produce something from nothing. We read as closely as possible, use those readings to write a complete and technically correct proposal, and move on to cocktail hour at quittin’ time.

Grant-seeking dinosaurs look up: The bright light in the sky is an asteroid

For reasons not clear to me, I am on the (usually) happy-talk email distribution list of Dorothy Stoneman, doyenne of YouthBuild USA, the trade group for the 273 or so YouthBuild providers across America. I’ve never met Dorothy, who is generally affable in her emails and is a tireless advocate and change agent (note: the preceding phrase is a free example of proposolese for you to use at your discretion, although I prefer “tireless organizational change agent” to really get grant reviewers hot and steamy).

Since Congress began its on- and off-again assault on discretionary spending last fall, Dorothy’s periodic emails have become increasingly strident and alarmist, perhaps for good reason. Although we’ve written dozens of funded YouthBuild proposals over the years, including two in the most recent funding round, training at-risk youth and young adults for construction trade careers seems a little odd in the face of the collapse of the housing market. America has many problems at the moment, but a lack of affordable housing and skilled construction workers are not among them.

Dorothy’s June 5 call-to-arms communique says:

In the FY11 House budget in process before the November 2010 elections, the US Department of Labor (DOL) would have received $120M for the YouthBuild program. But after the elections, when the House changed hands, the House re-did the budget and funding for YouthBuild was eliminated.After a grueling negotiation, in which the Senate and the Administration supported YouthBuild, the final budget included $80 million for YouthBuild in DOL. This was a $47.5M cut from the funds appropriated in Fiscal Year 2010. (FY10). As a direct result, in May, one hundred twenty one (121) of DOL’s 226 previously-funded YouthBuild grantees lost their funding. Only 105 YouthBuild programs are funded by DOL for 2011-2013 [Shameless Plug: two of these courtesy of Seliger + Associates grant writing prowess!]. Hundreds of organizations applying for the first time were also turned down. Can you imagine the devastation to those 121 communities of losing this pathway out of poverty for the most disadvantaged young adults? Imagine the heartbreak of the adults* who have worked so hard and fought to bring these opportunities to the young people in their communities?

According to Dorothy, the end of the world is nigh for YouthBuild grantees and the at-risk young folk who presumably will end badly without YouthBuild training. I imagine Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s hilarious “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex” Drinking Woolite from a bottle after he loses his literally beloved sheep, Daisy.

Dorothy shouts about the deleterious impact of lowered YouthBuild funding on “America’s most disadvantaged communities” (another proposalese gem); she advises lovelorn YouthBuild grantees and supporters to call their congresspeople and senators, of course, to beg for more YouthBuild funding. Call me cynical, but I think the chance of increased funding for YouthBuild is about zero.

Dorothy’s breathless email immediately conjured up the classic cartoon image of a gaggle of brontosauruses (née brontosauri, much like “Winklevi?”) peacefully munching on treetops as that bright light in the sky gets bigger during the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction. All the lobbying by Brontosauri in the USA would not have helped 65 million years ago, and YouthBuld grantees are experiencing a K-T event whether or not they want to admit it. I know, because I can read the grant tea leaves and I’ve talked to about a half-dozen YouthBuild grantees in the last month.

Here’s what we recommend to our YouthBuild and other clients who provide job training:

* Apply for YouthBuild and whatever other job training grants are still available, as it takes government agencies a bit of time to turn the Titanic. Keep in mind, however, that it is fairly pointless to train people for jobs that don’t exist. For example, most Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs, whether funded by the Department of Labor or a local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), offer grants via reimbursement only if the agency meets its performance targets. Since agencies conducting construction training are spectacularly unlikely to meet performance targets, there is little point in receiving such an award.

These days most training providers offer training for low-level health care and service sector jobs (e.g., push the cash register button with the picture of a cheeseburger when you sell a cheeseburger, etc.). Although YouthBuild is not directly performance-based, we’ve noticed that our YouthBuild clients are emphasizing their ability to get their graduates into community college, a DOL-accepted though rarely discussed YouthBuild program outcome, instead of placing them in a “career ladder job with living wage potential in the world of work” (another free proposalese phrase—there’s one in every box of GWC).

* While waiting around for job training grants, turn your YouthBuild program from a brontosaurus into a fleet-footed mammal by using the agency’s skills and track record to provide remedial education and related supportive services. Since every YouthBuild program has the same three components—adult basic education (ABE), job training and leadership development (YouthBuild-talk for wraparound supportive services)— kick out the middle leg, making the tricycle a bicycle, and go after programs like the Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, for which an RFP with about $350 million up for grabs should be issued in a couple of months. Or form a partnership with an LEA and take a flyer on the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, which has an RFP with $172 million on the street as I write this.

With almost one-third of American youth failing to graduate from high school and many graduates unable to read or write, it’s fairly obvious that there are going to be many grant opportunities for remedial education over the next few years. Even the usually indefatigable Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is soon going to issue waivers to all public schools from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind requirement that all children pass proficiency tests. Without the waivers, 83% of American public schools would be labeled as “failing” next year (I am not making this up).

Or watch for the cascade of discretionary grant programs authorized and funded under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” or the Grant Writer’s Relief Act, as we call it around the office). The Affordable Care Act is larded with grant opportunities, many of which involve “outreach.” That’s another way of saying “walkin’ around money for clever mammalian nonprofits.”

In face of rapid grant climate change, it is not a good idea to either continue nibbling on tree tops or run around in pointless circles as the asteroid looms. Get busy, re-think your agency’s strengths, and unleash your inner grant writer. Let the Dorothy Stonemans of the world, who have a real vested interest in keeping YouthBuild (YouthBuild USA, for example, is not going to sell many licenses to use the word “YouthBuild” to nonprofits without the DOL program) and similar archaic funding programs going. Instead, widen your agency’s funding streams beyond job training. There are tons of grants available, even if you have to root around to find them, rather than blissfully picking off the last choice leaf on a withering treetop.


*Note to Would Be Grant Writers: Do not use this kind of overwrought lingo in your proposals. Whenever I read, “the heartbreak of _______________,” I think of the Heartbreak of Psoriasis TV commercials that ran when I was a teenager. I didn’t know what psoriasis was, but I did know that not having a date to my Junior Prom at age 15, not a skin condition, was genuine heartbreak. I did, however, get asked to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance that year, so all was not lost.