Atlanta returns $1.3 million in unspent workforce development money

The city of Atlanta has returned $1.3 million in federal grant money it failed to spend on job training programs over two years.

The funds were meant to help unemployed and underemployed Atlanta residents get training so they could find new jobs. Such grants can be used for anything from subsidizing the cost of work-based training to paying for college certificate programs.

Because the city’s workforce training agency, WorkSource Atlanta, failed to use the money before a deadline in June, officials had to return the grants to the state, which administers the federal program and awards grants to local communities.

“It’s terrible to lose this money,” said Matt Westmoreland, a member of the Atlanta city council. “We want to make sure it’s spent well.”

It's impossible to say how many people could have been helped by the money, but a new contract with Atlanta Technical College to ensure the current workforce development grant is spent calls for 400 residents to be served by the end of June 2019. Fulton County, which returned $211,492 this year, estimated last month that it could have served 300 people if not for its own mismanagement. Fewer than 50 people received services from the county last year.

In 2016, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the city had to pay a $1.86 million settlement to the U.S. Departments of Justice and Labor after a 2014 investigation showed the agency gave grants to businesses with workers who did not exist and conducted minimal training, or none at all.

Melissa Mullinax, then the agency's interim director, said in 2016 that workforce development had "turned the corner."

The latest blunder suggests problems continued to persist up through this year.

The workforce development agency had “a long history of financial mismanagement and poor record keeping,” but is an important resource for residents, according to Michael Smith, a spokesperson for the city of Atlanta, who issued a statement Tuesday.

Smith said the city is working to appoint a new leader, reinstate job fairs and create new partnerships as part of a “rigorous transformation” for the agency.

Kimberlyn Daniel, who is now the acting executive director of WorkSource Atlanta, was appointed in July. She told board members in September that she was committed to getting the organization back on track.

“It’s hard to turn a ship when a course has been set,” said John Helton, the president and CEO of WorkSource Cobb. “It’s unfortunate for the system.”

Helton said Daniel’s appointment seemed to have created some stability, and Westmoreland said he’s been encouraged by her work. The city has even requested a second chance to spend some of the money it had to return, and the state is reviewing that request for $715,367.

But Westmoreland said the latest figures underscore the serious challenges the agency still faces.

“There’s a history here of us not doing right by our residents,” he said.

One such resident is Sonya Hooks. Hooks turned to the agency when she wanted to switch careers because of a family emergency, but she became frustrated.

Hooks, who worked as a locations coordinator in the film industry, had to take nine months off after her mother had a stroke. When she was ready to return to the workforce, she wanted to find a job with more consistent hours so she could help with her mother’s care.

It took nearly six months to cut through WorkSource Atlanta’s red tape and get approved for the federal grant program so she could start classes to earn a project management certificate at Georgia Tech.

She’s often gone to the agency’s office to use the computer, she said, only to find the computer lab closed early.

Hooks said the office is disorganized and she wasn’t given forms she needed her instructors to fill out to confirm that she was showing up for class, but that participants from other metro area workforce development programs had them.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “It’s a travesty.”

The skill sets of those who can use workforce training can vary greatly, said Tom Smith, a finance professor and economist at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. In some cases, Smith said, potential workers have to be trained about how to write a resume, interview, dress for work or respond to superiors. In other cases, the training can be job-specific, such as teaching database entry or welding. He said the training can help anticipate areas where jobs may be going away, to prepare workers for the positions that will replace the ones they have.

Since Atlanta agreed to a contract in June with Atlanta Technical College to take over workforce development duties, the school has identified 28 people who are eligible for services that include career exploration, academic assistance and social development help, said Adam Sweat, a spokesperson for Atlanta Technical College.

Westmoreland said job training, along with affordable housing, are key issues for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. He said the city is making progress, and will continue to do so. Westmoreland said he doesn’t want the workforce development issue to repeat itself again.

“The number doesn’t shock me, and the fact that it doesn’t shock me is a problem,” he said. “We’ve become accepting of things like this happening and we need to reject that.”