BALTIMORE – When the man in the teal hoodie mentioned that he had trained as a pharmacy technician, Lachelle Hill's voice rose in excitement. "Why don't I see that on here?" the state job counselor asked, pointing at the paperwork on the table between them.
Hill was counseling Corey, a 30-year-old jobseeker who didn't share his last name, at a federally funded job center in Baltimore.
Unemployment insurance beneficiaries are required to look for work, but Hill wasn't just checking Corey's paperwork for compliance. She was helping him focus his job search, and trying to steer him toward positions he was qualified for.
Such conversations are central to a re-employment grant program that the U.S. Department of Labor has touted for years. In February, Congress passed a budget bill that would make the program permanent and increase its funding from about $100 million last year to more than $3 billion over the next six years.
But creating evidence-based employment programs can be tricky. While research generally shows that employment assistance helps people get jobs, it's not always clear why certain programs work well and whether they can be expanded.
The nationwide employment program that Corey's benefiting from is based on a Nevada model that significantly reduced the amount of time people received unemployment benefits. Studies have yet to determine whether the Nevada approach can get the same results elsewhere.
Back at the job center, Corey said he'd been looking for jobs on roadwork crews and at the seaport, and talking to a friend about starting a day labor business. Hill zeroed in on the brightest spot on his résumé: his pharmacy training, which could net him wages of about $15 an hour in the area.
"Sometimes, people crash because they aim too low," Hill said. Corey said his pharmacy technician license had expired, but Hill said, "Let's look into the recertification, and see if we can get you the funds to do that."
The current federal re-employment program began as a grant with a slightly different focus called Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment, or REA. The first $18 million was split between 20 states in 2005. States used the money to require some unemployment insurance claimants to go to a career center for an interview. Staff members would check that the claimant was actively searching for work, share labor market information, and make sure they had a job search plan.
The program was designed to uncover idlers who weren't looking for work and to help participants get jobs faster.
A 2011 Labor Department-funded study of the REA program in Florida, Idaho, Illinois and Nevada found that, on average, participants reduced their time receiving benefits by over a week compared with a control group. The Nevada program had the best results: It cut time receiving benefits by almost three weeks, saving $805 in payments on average.
The researchers said Nevada's program may have been successful because it used the same staff to conduct eligibility checks, help claimants make job search plans, and also connected participants with more career services.