Most of the roughly 165,000 job seekers inflating Tampa Bay's unemployment rolls would be happy finding just one solid job.
Ed Peachey, a key figure on the front lines of the jobs crisis, has been juggling two.
Peachey not only heads WorkNet Pinellas, but he's also interim head of its sister employment organization across the bay, the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance. Both groups are part of the network of state work force boards, which use government funding to place people in new jobs and training programs.
Peachey, 47, was picked to run the alliance 10 months ago after then-CEO Renee Benton Gilmore resigned amid a flap over lavish spending on food for staff. The temp job is slated to expire in June, but Peachey would like to merge the staff of both organizations while keeping both boards separate — and to make his job leading both of them permanent.
"It might be ground-breaking, I don't know," he said, adding that it's up to the two boards whether to proceed. Peachey recently took a break from both jobs to talk with the St. Petersburg Times about how the agencies are battling 12.6 percent unemployment in the bay area.
Are labor markets starting to improve?
I'm not seeing much improvement as far as unemployment goes. It's just pretty much been flat. It might bounce around a little each month, but no significant change over the year.
That's across the board?
It's across the board. The only areas we've seen a little bit of gain have been in health care, government and education. But government and education were being propped up with stimulus funds, and they're all going to be used up here shortly. We have work force development programming for education and those stimulus funds will probably be gone (after 2010). We're not going to have as much funding available over the next year.
Are you hearing about pent-up demand from businesses that just aren't quite confident enough to start hiring?
Well, I still think (the issue is) there's a skills gap. Even though there are a lot of people who are unemployed that have more skills than when unemployment was at 3 or 4 percent, they're not necessarily the skills that employers are looking for.
And there are a lot of entry-level jobs where employers are struggling to find people who will accept $8 or $10 an hour. I talked to someone in the staffing industry (about the issue). Usually, the turnaround is in the staffing industry first. That's where you start to see economic growth.
How much more challenging is it to place people who have been out of work for some time?
That really varies by individual. It depends on their skills and their previous work history. I don't know that there's a one-size-fits-all approach. You have to look individual by individual. That's the way we try to do it in our one-stop centers.
The much-touted Back to Work program targeting unemployed people with children has ended. What training options are there to give people the best chance at securing a job?
We're getting pretty low on training funds, but we have some left. As far as career counseling goes, we try to guide as many as possible to health care occupations, the only place we've really seen any growth. … We've also had some success in training people in welding and information technology.
How are you juggling WorkNet Pinellas and Workforce Alliance responsibilities?
A lot depends on meetings, whether I have one on one side of the bay or the other. I try to spend some time in each office every day, a minimum of 30 hours a week in both places. I started interim (at the Workforce Alliance) on March 15 and go until June 30 in the current contract.
Then what happens?
We'll determine that over the next six months. We'll probably have some type of answer for that, I imagine, by April. It will depend on what the directors of the two work force boards want to do, whether they want to continue some type of staff-sharing agreement that's on the table. … That's my recommendation. Not to merge the boards, but to have two separate boards with several staff in common.
Where are you in restructuring the alliance?
We've reorganized at the administrative level and at the board level. We've contracted our services in Hillsborough County out to Arbor (Education and Training), a subsidiary of ResCare, the same company that's contracted to run the job corps center in St. Pete.
How many alliance jobs were cut when you outsourced?
I'm not sure exactly how many people were let go. Arbor ended up hiring a lot who had been with the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance. They had the skills to do the jobs.
Any lessons learned by WorkNet Pinellas from the Hillsborough controversy?
WorkNet learned those lessons nine years ago, and we implemented those policies and procedures (with) additional oversight back in 2003-2004. We worked that out when we were still a part of the county, and then we spun off and became a nonprofit.
Our audits have been doing quite well. We've performed as well as or better than 60 to 70 percent of the other work force boards. Everybody has to be on board to make that happen.
That's where we're starting out in Tampa now is trying to get everyone together and moving in the same direction. When you go through a major restructuring like we did, sometimes morale is very low.
What's next to get more people back to work?
It's hard when you have less training money. A lot of people who are unemployed have skills. They don't necessarily need training or retraining. They need jobs opening up to do what they can already do. Straight up, I'm talking about construction, probably the biggest job loss in the last three to four years.
We started a (welding) program because of planning for the nuclear plant in Levy County and those plans seem to have hit a wall. … It seemed like they were moving along pretty well and all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under them. The welding program was really relying on that. … Some of the (trained welders) worked on the big solar installation in Central Florida. We had 10 to 15 welders working on that, which was good while it lasted.
Now, where they're building nuclear plants is in places like Georgia and Texas. So that's where people are going.
Will Tampa Bay's unemployment rate be lower a year from now?
That's going to depend on what types of action are taken in the Legislature to strengthen the economy. The state is going to have to do something to get the economy moving, get more jobs created, and put more emphasis on re-employment services vs. unemployment benefits.
But I do think a year from now unemployment will be less than 10 percent.