In the more than 30 years I’ve been involved with job training in California, there’s never been a situation like the present. Due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the job training world has seen an unprecedented increase in funds for skills training, retraining and youth job placement. At the same time, with the recession’s elimination of more than 737,000 payroll jobs in California over the year, job training groups are struggling to identify job opportunities for training.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided $3.95 billion in additional job training money nationwide, and roughly $424 million by formula to California. This funding has been above the on-going federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funds, which nationwide in 2009-2010 included $861 million in adult training funds, $1.46 billion in dislocated worker funds and $924 million in youth funds, along with the $703 million in Wagner Peyser funds. Additionally, the federal Department of Labor currently has a solicitation for projects for $500 million in “Green Jobs” training.

The great bulk of the ARRA money, as the bulk of the WIA money, goes to the fifty local Workforce Investment Boards in California. This public sector WIB system is criticized from time to time for training that is not related to jobs or job placement. But in my experience this is definitely not the case. Nearly all WIBs closely connect training to job openings in their region. They are closely attuned to their local job markets. The public workforce training system in California has evolved over the past forty years in California as a suitably pragmatic one.

In fact, it is precisely because they are so tied to jobs, that the WIBs are having so much difficulty today. As is by now well-known, nearly all job openings in California attract tens of applicants, at times, over one hundred applicants. Dorothy Chen, the longtime head of the Alameda County WIB, recently noted a park ranger job in the County that attracted over 300 applicants.

The WIBs would be pleased to use training funds in the construction field, for pre-apprenticeship programs and/or supportive services (federal funds cannot supplant the formal Apprenticeship program funding established through collective bargaining agreements). However, in nearly all parts of the state, the construction hiring halls are filled with out of work incumbent workers, with union construction unemployment running%- 20%, and higher.

The strategy that most WIBs are taking is to focus on niche jobs, particularly in health care, engineering, and emerging weatherization programs. David Gruber is the head of Growth Sector, a non-profit, that designs and implements training programs. Among his current niche trainings are a career pathway for environmental controls technician, a career pathway for weatherization auditor/installer, and a career pathway for refrigeration technicians. All involve a mix of part-time work (including subsidized employment) and part-time customized training with the local community college district or California State University campus.

Although construction jobs are limited, there are niche opportunities in construction management/program management. Gruber is currently examining with HNTB Corporation and a number of other major California construction management firms, the development of a career pathway in construction management. The construction management pathways follows the model of immediate placement, on-the-job training and customized training, with the community college/CSU.

These technician jobs are not the answer to joblessness in California; there is a very limited number of such positions. But they do provide some direct placements, and, as important, the long term career opportunities.