Job seekers at Ramsey County’s workforce center in North St. Paul ticked off the ways staff there had helped them, from explaining how to register a business to helping transfer information from a floppy disk to a flash drive.

St. Paul and Ramsey County have been pooling millions of dollars to provide such services for nearly two decades. But as St. Paul zeros in on creating jobs and fighting persistent poverty, city leaders are taking a hard look at the workforce programs. Are the centers in the right place? Are the programs working? Is the investment worth it?

“We’re putting into the pot and the question is: Are St. Paul residents getting what they need?” said St. Paul Council Member Chris Tolbert, who is on the Workforce Innovation Board that oversees the county’s efforts.

The metro area’s unemployment rate is hovering around 3.5 percent, among the lowest in the nation. But St. Paul lags slightly behind Minneapolis and many suburbs, and its poverty rate has increased to more than 22 percent.

When the county and city merged their workforce efforts in 2000, Ramsey County’s Workforce Solutions department took over. It provides a variety of youth and adult programs at three workforce centers. Last year, the department spent $22.5 million and served 12,257 people.

Of those people, county officials noted, 84 percent were St. Paul residents.

The city created a committee this year to come up with ideas to better serve the city’s nearly 66,000 residents living in poverty. Its first recommendation was to review the Workforce Solutions partnership.

More services needed?

The locations of the county’s three workforce centers — North St. Paul, downtown St. Paul and on the far western edge of St. Paul near the Green Line — were among the committee’s concerns.

“They need more locations in communities where people are the hardest hit,” like St. Paul’s East Side, Frogtown and North End neighborhoods, said committee member Tonya Draughn, who used to work for Goodwill-Easter Seals helping connect people with job services.

Job seekers told her they preferred the old workforce system before the merger, Draughn said, because St. Paul had more neighborhood-based job services. Committee members also said county staff do not always provide the intensive help some people need.

“People want a more hands-on interaction instead of being pushed to a class that they maybe don’t get anything out of — or don’t know what the next step should be,” Draughn said.

Several City Council members said they also have long been concerned about whether the millions of dollars they channel into the partnership are garnering the best possible results.

“I felt like the value for the dollars committed to that program were not playing out in terms of what we need in St. Paul,” said Council Member Amy Brendmoen, who represented St. Paul on the Workforce Innovation Board before Tolbert. “It’s time to actually reach an action point.”

Council members said they want to talk with county officials about workforce programs and results. Patricia Brady, the county’s Workforce Solutions director, said she would be happy to give city leaders the details. “They are asking the kind of questions I ask myself as well,” she said.

Ramsey County is also thinking about how to best serve community members, Brady said. County staff will soon start surveying people who use job services on what’s working and how those services could be improved. Brady hopes to make changes by the end of the year.

Tolbert said Ramsey County and St. Paul need to think bigger when it comes to workforce planning and do more to connect local colleges with big employers.

That’s an area on which both city and county officials agree. “We need to make certain that people are prepared, and create pipelines to make sure people can get into the pathways for the work that exists today,” said County Commissioner Toni Carter, who chairs the Workforce Innovation Board. “It’s not just a city issue, it’s a regional issue.”

Return on investment

While some residents want more from the workforce centers, others, like Jesse Mongrue, are satisfied with the help they have received.

Mongrue, of Vadnais Heights, scanned for government jobs Thursday at the North St. Paul location. The center was nearly empty, but he said it fills up quickly with events and training sessions.

“It’s a good return on investment” for the county and city, said Mongrue, who is job hunting and working on a Ph.D. at the University of St. Thomas. He is participating in the Dislocated Worker Program, which partners talented job seekers with career coaches.

Last year, 890 people participated in the program and 447 got jobs, with an average hourly wage around $20, according to Ramsey County.

That’s the type of information Brady plans to share if she meets with city leaders.

“Once they see the big picture and where they are in that picture, I think they’ll feel more comfortable,” Brady said. Their partnership is important, she said, and “we’re stronger if everyone’s voice is at the table.”