Ready to do some business

State's new labor commissioner pledges to help private enterprise

Posted: Friday, January 10, 2003

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development isn't just about handing out unemployment checks or enforcing labor laws. It's about helping private enterprise, government and the public connect to create a better economy for the state.

That's the message Greg O'Claray, the department's new commissioner, brought to the Kenai Peninsula on Thursday.

O'Claray, who was in Kenai as the keynote speaker for the Peninsula Job Center's employer summit, said both the department and the job centers it oversees statewide need to do a better job of listening to business and industry in order to build up the economy.

"What we're trying to do is figure out our mission in life and accomplish it," he told a group of about 30 public and private industry representatives. "Employer involvement is key. We can't put unemployed or retrained people to work without you.

"The (state) government is committed to moving the economy forward. The task the governor gave to our department is to go into the community and get some direction."

To that end, job centers throughout the state have been conducting community summits to share their services with employers and collect feedback from them.

The summit Thursday in Kenai was no exception.

"Most people perceive job centers as the 'unemployment office,'" O'Claray said. "The first impression is what's lasting."

But, he noted, the state's job centers go far beyond reaching out to the unemployed.

Harry Lockwood, a vocational counselor with the Peninsula Job Center, explained that the center not only helps unemployed workers build job and interview skills and find positions in the community. It also offers a number of services to area employers, including an online job posting site, pre-screening of job applications, seminars on employer issues, employee training facilities and a clearinghouse of other forms and information employers need. Services also can be tailored to the needs of specific companies, he said.

Colleen Ward, a member of the center's local advisory committee, added the center is involved in partnerships between different entities in the community.

Most recently, she said, it has been involved with the founding of the Kenai Peninsula World Class Workforce Coalition.

That group came about after the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District acknowledged its shortcomings in vocational education and reached out to the community for help, she said.

A steering committee formed by a group of concerned community members came together and is working to develop an independent force to help connect education, government and industry.

The job center will be an integral part of that partnership, Ward said.

But as much as the job center offers, it can always do better, staff members said.

"We're dedicated to continuous improvement," Lockwood said. "We need and want your input."

In response, several of the gathered business people had positive feedback to share regarding their experiences with the job center, and with the labor department as a whole.

However, some did have suggestions.

For example, they want the job center to coordinate the workforce, so that if one company is laying off while a similar company is hiring, workers can move smoothly between opportunities.

Employers also want more training for lower-level workers, rather than supervisors. That training should include things such as information technology, customer service and basic work ethics, they said.

They also suggested the job center learn more about its industry clients so it can offer more customized services.

For example, some bigger companies do not need the basic-level human resources help the job center offers, but could use more advanced training courses. Smaller, upstart companies, on the other hand, simply may need basic information on state forms and employment laws.

The job center needs to market its services more efficiently, the employers said.

In addition, employers want the center to develop a pre-screening certification process so that employers can easily identify drug-free workers with basic customer service, safety and work ethic skills.

Another big topic for the day was government grant programs. Both the state and federal government offer funding for employers to provide continued job training for their workers.

However, the employers complained, the paperwork for such programs is often more work than it's worth, and the process needs to be streamlined.

Though the idea is one the Peninsula Job Center has little control over, staff said the suggestions would get to the right people.

Throughout the afternoon, employers and job center staff discussed concrete ways to meet the needs of local businesses and improve the efficiency of the job center.

Staff members said they would get to work on the suggestions.

"I tried to listen from an advisory committee member perspective," Ward said, adding the committee will look for ways to help the center answer the employers' requests.

Likewise, O'Claray said he will work to make the labor department as a whole more employer-friendly.

"Don't be afraid to tell this commissioner what you really think," he said.

"You've heard other government say, 'We're open for business.' We're not just open for business, we're going to do some business."

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