Baker demands new ideas to address chronic unemployment

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By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — Seeking to end persistent employment problems among people of color, recently returned veterans and people with disabilities, Baker administration officials plan to spend the next several months gathering ideas to improve the situation in time for the governor’s drafting of the fiscal 2017 state budget.

“We have to be much more focused on being willing to invest time and energy and probably some allocation of funding to some models and some communities that we may not have spent as much time or money on as we should have before,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at a press conference Thursday.

Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Ron Walker will lead the task force, which he said will include public hearings in different regions seeking best practices for strengthening the “pipeline” to employment. The task force includes cabinet members, and leaders from the business and community service fields, including Gerald Chertavian, the founder of Year-Up, which seeks to connect urban youths with career and educational opportunities.

The selection of a task force has emerged as a favored strategy for Baker early in his tenure. The governor has so far handpicked teams of experts to advise him on the state’s opioid addiction problem and on the structural dynamics that contributed to the MBTA’s failures this winter.

In Massachusetts, African American and Latino unemployment rates in 2014 were 10.8 and 10.9 percent, more than double the white rate of 5.2 percent and in keeping with a dynamic that goes back years, according to data supplied by the Office of Labor and Workforce Development. In 2010 when the state was emerging from recession the Latino unemployment rate was 16.1 percent, far outpacing the state’s overall rate of 8.5 percent.

“The discrepancy here, particularly for a number of these groups, has been with us for a long period of time, in good economies and bad, and that says to me whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing we’re not,” said Baker, who said he is looking for “alternative thinking” and new ideas.

The task force includes William Kiernan, a UMass Boston dean who holds the school’s James T. Brett Chair in Disability and Workforce Development.

“There is exactly one chair in the United States that’s focused on work for people with disabilities and it was just started a year ago and it was named after Jim Brett. There’s one,” Baker said. “Fifty states, 300 million people, one chair that’s focused at an academic institution around connecting people with disabilities to work. That should tell you something about how far we have to go.”

Calls for more jobs are a frequent refrain on campaign trails and the Legislature and prior administrations have attempted to boost employment.

Last summer’s economic development law included funding to clean up polluted sites, job training for people with disabilities and funding for data industries.

“For too long the target populations have suffered from chronically high rates of unemployment,” said Walker. He said “Governor Baker has asked us to come up with answers to a question that has long perplexed the workforce development community: Why are some people and communities being left behind reaping the benefits of a growing economy?”

According to a March 2014 news release from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for recent veterans was higher than the rate for both non-veterans and veterans of an earlier era.

Veterans Services Secretary Francisco Urena said veterans want guidance and he said disconnected “silos” have hampered efforts to assist veterans in the past.

Urena said he would implement a provision of a 2014 law called The VALOR Act II, which requires local veterans agents to receive certification and he said his office would focus on achieving consistent messages from veterans offices.

A Marine veteran who said he was a tank commander on the front lines and served at two American embassies, Urena also said he does not believe there will be any reduction in the Bay State’s military institutions.

During the Patrick administration, the Legislature authorized $177 million in state funds to make upgrades to the state’s military installations to insulate them from potential federal cuts.

The task force was established by an executive order signed at a press conference. Baker said the first executive order he was involved with was in 1991 when the late Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci sought to “elevate” the discussion of domestic violence, which Baker said led to a series of “pretty significant reforms.”

“It’s pretty clear that doing nothing other than what we’ve been doing doesn’t really get us anywhere,” Baker said. The report will be due Nov. 15.