Jane Samargia, executive director of Minneapolis-based HIRED, was one of 30 employment experts tapped to visit President Obama at the White House on Jan. 31 as he unveiled legislation and funding to get the long-term unemployed back to work. Each year HIRED retrains thousands of laid-off workers and places them in colleges, training programs and in manufacturing plants that need skilled talent.


Q: How did you come to be invited to the White House?

A: It all came together so quickly. Erick Ajax, the chair of our M-Powered [manufacturing training program] was invited to the president’s State of the Union address and the White House quickly arranged this follow meeting for that Friday. Erick had a [prior] business commitment and asked if I would go in his place to represent our M-Powered collaboration. Of course I said, “Yes, I will go.” I was so excited.


Q: So how does Obama plan to get the long-term unemployed back to work?

A: The thing that really struck me is that he kept referring to the fact that what has worked … to move the long-term unemployed into employment is partnerships between the business community and those nonprofits in community-based organizations. The organizations select and prepare and help the [unemployed] move into job training programs and then connect them with employers and support services. He made the point over and over that it takes those partnerships working together [to attack the problem].


Q: Isn’t that HIRED’s expertise?

A: Yes. HIRED, Hennepin Technical College, E.J. Ajax & Sons [in Fridley], the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association and other employers here have been working on this issue since 2005 [through a manufacturing-centered training program called M-Powered]. We have been building that pipeline to produce skilled manufacturing workers. … Creating the workers that employers need and finding employers who need these workers are the two sides of the equation [that we work on].


Q: So what was it like to have the president speak to your issue?

A: Very gratifying, believe me. It was said over and over and over again, that the nonprofit and community-based organizations like ours are the ones who are really crucial in making the connection between the workers and the employers.


Q: Did Obama take any action during this meeting?

A: He signed an executive order that the federal government should not discriminate against the long-term unemployed when it comes to hiring. We hear about that from our own clients. And it was clear that President Obama took that to heart. He said that has to stop. The other thing he brought up was that business leaders told him that the credit reports of the long-term unemployed were sometimes used to discourage hiring. He said that has got to stop, too. He also signed one executive order to make [about] $150 million available from the U.S. Department of Labor [DOL] sometime this month. It will be for organizations to apply for, to form partnerships [that] either continue or start up programs across the nation that get the long-term unemployed to work. These are organizations like our M-Powered program. M-Powered will certainly apply for these funds.


Q: How are such grants used?

A: Well, the M-Powered program we have with Hennepin Technical College and E.J. Ajax and other manufacturing companies just ended a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. That was a $2.8 million grant, but it just ended Sept. 30. That was used to train [unemployed] people in manufacturing. So that is [one example] of where we have faced ups and downs. We have had DOL grants previously but they are all time-limited, so they ran out.


Q: How did HIRED use that last DOL grant?

A: It goes to pay client’s tuition and pays for a part of what we do here. And then of course there is also support services for the trainees such as if they need transportation. It also has paid for some on-the-job training. The last grant that just ended was used to train people in the biomedical fields to do the soldering, clean-room work and the manufacturing of tiny parts and pieces of equipment.


Q: If you win a piece of the new $150 million grant, will it pay for those same types of costs?

A: We will have to see the details of that [grant] program first. They have not come out yet. Typically, they are several pages long. But from what the president announced, the grants will be used specifically to support the training of the long-term unemployed in high-demand jobs that will fill the needs of businesses. … We find that in manufacturing, they can’t get enough workers, so we would focus on that.


Q: There were senators, company CEOs, nonprofits and a panel of unemployed workers also at this meeting. What was Obama’s message to these different interest groups?

A: His address was to get the information out that these things [such as long-term unemployment, missed payments on credit reports and hiring discrimination] shouldn’t hold the unemployed back. He said: Come on, give people a chance. There are a lot of talented people out there. And they are ready to work. They want to work, but they are being held back [by some employers who won’t look beyond an employment gap on the résumé].


Q: What ways does the president envision other corporations getting involved in reducing unemployment?

A: He asked one of the big human resource firms to put together some guidelines for recruiting and interviewing that would not out of hand [discriminate] against the long-term unemployed. That was something I didn’t know was going on.


Dee DePass • 612-673-7725