New York Views

James Taranto
The Regulated Samaritan
Spring 1991

In the basement of a public housing project on East 112th Street are the modest headquarters of STRIVE, a remarkably successful job-training program. STRIVE opened its doors in East Harlem in 1985 and was patterned after a program begun at the Lower East Side’s Henry Street Settlement three years earlier. STRIVE later opened affiliates in the Bronx, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. The organization has placed some 1,500 young inner-city residents in jobs, with a retention rate of 80 percent.

Early last year, STRIVE’s success attracted the attention of the city’s Private Industry Council, an agency that contracts job-training services for the Department of Employment. The Private Industry Council offered STRIVE $33,000 in federal Job Training and Partnership Act funds to train 30 people to work in the hotel industry. What followed was a bureaucratic nightmare that pitted STRIVE’s unusual but highly successful philosophy against the needs of a multilayered bureaucracy.

STRIVE emphasizes personal responsibility and quick entry into the job market rather than training in specific skills. Explains STRIVE’s president, Michael Frey: “We feel that the most important thing with young people who have not had any employment history or experience, living in areas where they do not have any role models, is to get them as quickly as possible to work and then support them.” That support consists of services such as follow-up phone calls every 60 days, counseling, and in some cases, help in pursuing an education.

STRIVE’s approach is based on the belief, as the organization’s annual report says, that “employers are more than willing to provide long-term skills training for entry-level employees, provided they are reasonably competent and have a good attitude.”

STRIVE’s track record seems to bear out this assertion: Among the employers that have taken on STRIVE trainees are Citibank, NYNEX, Random House, Bloomingdale’s, and several city agencies. Francine Vitrano, a recruiter for Viacom International who hired three STRIVE clients last year, raves about the workers who come out of the program: “They seem very diligent, very organized, and they are just genuinely hard-working people. They are very interested in getting the job done, very interested in growing. They’re just great.”

STRIVE’s success was impressive enough to attract a $4 million challenge grant from the Clark Foundation, and the organization is mounting a fund-raising drive to match the grant two to one. The money will fund JOBS 10,000, a citywide employment network that aims to employ 10,000 young people by 1995.

STRIVE’s success attracted city bureaucrats. But the federal Job Training and Partnership Act, whose funds the Private Industry Council administers, stresses specific job skills and extensive training, contrary to STRIVE’s normal procedures. Thus, when the council drew up an 18-page contract for STRIVE, it specified a classroom curriculum of 210 hours over seven weeks, rather than the three-week training cycle STRIVE usually uses. The system of payments specified in the contract rewarded typically bureaucratic “body-count” achievements over real effectiveness. STRIVE would be paid $440 for each enrollment (up to 30), $137.50 for each student who finished the training (up to 24), but only $157.14 for each student placed in a job (up to 21). STRIVE normally will maintain a relationship with a client for as long as necessary, but the government contract provides no rewards for doing so. The contract did award STRIVE $330 per trainee who kept his job for 30 days.

As the program progressed, the elaborate requirements of the contract actually impeded STRIVE’s job-placement efforts. In order to be considered “trained,” students had to complete at least three-fourths of the 210 hours of the training curriculum, a curriculum that prolonged their unemployment, according to STRIVE President Frey. “We began to go to hotels [for] job opportunities,” Frey recalls. “After two weeks, we came up with about 10 opportunities. But [students] could not take the jobs because they were not ’trained.’ . . . These were mainly going to be jobs [as] room attendants, making beds and stuff like that,” Frey explains. “The government regulations wanted us to teach them how to mix drinks.” As a result, Frey says, trainees had to pass up these opportunities, which no longer existed by the time the training ended.

STRIVE was able to find other jobs for the students, but these placements proved costly for the organization. In addition to the $157.14 awarded STRIVE for each trainee placed in a job, the organization was eligible for an additional $235.71, but only if the job was “training-related.” To determine whether a job is “training-related,” the Private Industry Council compares it against a list of acceptable job titles. Unless special permission is obtained from the council, contractors are penalized for placements outside the categories—even if the jobs are better or higher paying than the ones for which clients were trained.

The city, of course, has its reasons for writing tight contracts: It is trying to avoid trouble with broadly written federal guidelines. Craig Walker, former director of operations for the Private Industry Council, says the city imposes stiff requirements on training programs, to “build a case” in the event that a contract is questioned by federal regulators. “If the training is too short, it’s hard to justify how real skills can be obtained.”

Walker believes the restrictions are necessary to avoid fraud and abuse. Though local authorities have considerable discretion in implementing federal rules, he contends that the city’s stringency has paid off. A recent federal review of the city’s On-the-Job Training program found only “extremely minor” discrepancies, he says, whereas in other parts of the country “you have people going into a six-month [program] where they don’t learn skills. At the end of that they’re laid off and replaced by people going into another [program].... You have ... previous employees of the company hired on . . . [federally subsidized] programs to do the job that they previously held.”

The city’s regulations can make life difficult for successful programs. But creative bureaucrats can alleviate these problems, says Walker. “Sometimes you end up fighting battles over one person. In my experience with the City Department of Employment, when you do that, you can [ultimately] find someone who is responsive to the logic of the situation,” and tries to help. “Sometimes they can, sometimes they can t. Unfortunately for people running good programs, bureaucratic savvy becomes an essential skill. Without it, government money can become an instrument of torture.

Frey says he expects not to seek government funding again. “But what we are trying to do through JOBS 10,000 is change public policy, to get people to focus on the reality of where people are who come out of the . . . street economy. You’ve got them for a few seconds, and unless you make an impression and make something happen very quickly, you’ve lost them, and you end up with what I call program junkies, people who bounce from one program to another and never get into any real-life world.”

The city’s bureaucracy often seems to have the same problem. Walker notes that the city frequently approaches successful programs and encourages them to apply for funding, an indication that bureaucrats really do care about doing good. The question is whether they can figure out a way to fund programs without suffocating them.

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