State employs online chat to reach out to businesses

To address complaints it did not do enough in the past to reach out to businesses, the Georgia Department of Labor is stepping up efforts to be more responsive to employers.

The agency recently used its new Ask TED online chat initiative to allow businesspeople to get live Web assistance on issues such as recruiting, employment law, the labor market, and tax credits and incentives.

The Labor Department also is working to improve employment fairs and to better screen potential employees that the department suggests as job candidates, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said.

“We don’t want to send 30 people to an employer just to send 30 people,” Butler said, adding that some businesses stopped using the department as a resource because of what they saw as ill-equipped applicant referrals. “We want to make sure that if we only send 12, they are qualified for the job.

“One of the things we have to do is repair the trust in the department in some cases,” said Butler, who became labor commissioner in January.

Ashley Gross, marketing manager for Atlanta-based Rural Sourcing, said the effort is working. She joined the June chat for Ask TED, which stands for “type, explore, discover,” and quickly found specifics on an upcoming job fair and how often the agency updates its job listings, a top priority because she often posts employment opportunities.

“That’s different from a few years ago when there was a big disconnect between the department and the business community,” Gross said.

About 90 businesspeople participated in the Ask TED chat, and the discussion, archived on the department’s website, has been replayed more than 120 times, department spokesman Sam Hall said. A previous chat in February for job seekers attracted about 70 people.

The department said most of the improvements, like Ask TED, have minimal costs because they use existing staff and volunteers. Like most state departments, Labor saw its budget cut in fiscal 2011 — down more than 1 percent, or nearly $5 million.

Gross said one of the strengths of the Ask TED chat was the moderator’s ability to answer questions privately if discretion was needed and publicly if an answer had general interest.

“It was kind of neat,” she said, “because it was good to see what questions other people had.”