Unemployed job seekers could get some extra help in learning new skills under a bill lawmakers are considering.

House Bill 1272 seeks to use money — about $8 million that has already been identified in the unemployment insurance trust fund — to aid workers in learning new skills or to help them start their own business.

The bill was nearly killed, but was revived by its widespread bipartisan support.

The bill has passed the Republican-dominated House, and stands a good chance in the Senate.

No date has been set for debate in the Senate’s Business, Labor and Technology Committee.

The program has strong roots.

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About $15 million was originally allocated for the program in 2009, assisting 2,500 workers, about 74.6 percent of whom found long-term employment. Now there’s $8 million left and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment hopes to continue the program — and expand it.

“We’re still working out some of the technical details,” said Patrick Teegarden, director of policy and legislation for the state department. “We’re only halfway through the process. But every day that it looks good — and we’re feeling pretty positive right now — we’re working on putting flesh on the bones.”

The bones of the deal: eligible unemployed workers who are receiving state unemployment benefits will receive up to 50 percent more money to enroll in approved workforce development training programs. The programs will be administered by regional workforce centers, like the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, and community colleges like Pikes Peak Community College. If passed, the $8 million will be spent during a two-year period.

There is one problem: there’s no money to administer the program, says PPWFC spokeswoman Jeanne Cotter.

“They’re hoping that if the bill passes, there will be funding for administrative costs through the U.S. Department of Labor,” she said. “But we’ll know more after it passes.”

State-level workforce development specialists will meet with local workforce officials to decide which training programs are eligible. The program that sunsets this year focused on high-tech and “green” jobs, but Teegarden says the new bill expands the definition.

“We don’t want to be seen as picking winners and losers,” he said. “But we do want to make sure there is a long-term job at the end of the training. That means we could focus on manufacturing jobs, but it also might include accounting and nursing.”

The newest version of the program reaches out to a larger population as well. It includes veterans and people who are using long-term federal unemployment benefits.

Advocates of the bill say it creates a path toward jobs. But opponents say it uses money from the unemployment insurance trust fund — a fund that is technically insolvent. The state still owes the federal government for money it borrowed when unemployment skyrocketed after the 2008 financial crisis.

“But I tell those people that if you used the money for unemployment benefits alone, it would only cover about eight days of benefits,” said Tony Gagliardi, Colorado executive director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “If we use it for this program, it gets people permanently off unemployment.”

Colorado’s unemployment rate is about 8.2 percent, according to the latest figures from the Department of Labor and Employment. More money for the program gives some of those people the opportunity for a job, Gagliardi said.

“Think about it, if you’re out of work for two years, your skills significantly decline,” said Gagliardi, who testified before the House committee considering the bill. “It’s impossible to get a job without additional training. This addresses that problem.”

Teegarden said the bill provides definite performance standards to measure its success — employment rates, average wages and employment retention. In addition, the new bill allows the program to be conducted at job sites.

“We’ve expanded it to allow employers who are looking for trained workers to participate,” he said. “That way, they might be eligible for state or federal credits — and they get a trained workforce.”

Gagliardi also praised the bill’s provisions that would provide training for people who want to start their own businesses. And, he said he didn’t understand why it wasn’t more widely supported.

“The program has been very successful,” he said. “A 74 percent job rate is very successful. And there’s money left over to continue it, so why not continue it? Instead of having people collecting 26 weeks of unemployment sit on the couch, then move into long-term unemployment — this gives them a job. It’s a positive bill.”

Teegarden had counted the bill as dead, but is pleased it regained life.

“I’ve lobbied for the state for years,” he said. “And I do not remember a bill killed by a committee being revived by that same committee. It’s a first.”


Proposed program improvements

  • Program eligibility for military, federal and extended benefit claimants
  • Inclusion of approved employer-based and entrepreneurial training programs
  • Improved partnership with regional workforce centers and other local resources

Measurable program performance

Performance outcomes will be based on entered employment rates, average wages, employment retention and other return-on-investment determinations, and as financial investment comparisons to other employment initiatives. Data will be collected by state and local partners and by participating employers.

Responsible stewardship of UI Trust Fund

  • 100 percent of the dollars obligated from UI trust fund for the program will be paid as benefits to participating claimants.
  • Administrative costs for the program will be identified from separate sources, such as eligible federal funds or other gifts, grants or donations.
  • This program will not extend the allowable time period for unemployment benefits.

This proposed investment is a small percentage of the UT trust fund, and will not preclude standard benefits to other eligible claimants.