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As Bush Outlines Proposed Cuts, Vocational Services Try to Adjust

The wall in her home of which Laura Koster is most proud is the one that holds her diplomas, certificates and honors. An eternal optimist who has beaten grim predictions about life with cerebral palsy, Koster, 38, proved her childhood neurologist wrong and today can both walk and drive.

She earned college scholarships with a 4.0 grade-point average in high school and won recognition for programs she ran on her Long Island University campus promoting awareness of the physically challenged.

“Everything they proclaimed I would never do, I’ve done 10,000 times and more,” said Koster, who now gives motivational speeches.

But Koster’s spirits sank in 2002, when, as a result of post-Sept. 11 budget cuts, she lost her job with a New York City-run program for people with physical and developmental challenges.

“I was so down and I was so frustrated,” she said.

The Jewish social service agencies she visited for vocational help also were going through tough times following cuts in funding from local and federal agencies.

In the last several years, those agencies have worked to find new sources of funding or revise their services for leaner times.

In Koster’s case, a counselor at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, known as Met Council, helped her manage her frustration and her job hunt. Federation Employment and Guidance Service, a beneficiary agency of the UJA-Federation of New York, helped pay for her New York State certification in counseling.

A few weeks ago she accepted an offer for part-time work counseling children at a Chabad-affiliated school in New York.

But many Jewish vocational agencies are continuing to grapple with reduced funding and are bracing for further cuts outlined recently in President Bush’s proposed 2006 budget.

Bush plans to cut $408 million from training and employment in 2006 — a 5.6 percent cut from 2005 — according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

Vocational agencies aren’t the only ones anxious: Social service agencies across the board are wondering how the final budget will affect their funding. But vocational agencies occupy a special niche — they seek to retrain and retool people who may have lost their jobs due to belt-tightening in other sectors.

Reports indicate that the national economy is improving, but workers in Jewish vocational services say they continue to see a flood of job-seekers.

For one, people are living longer and retiring later, creating greater demand, said Genie Cohen, executive director of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services.

“Certainly we’ve weathered the storms of high unemployment, and agencies are constantly having to reinvent themselves and be proactive in terms of budgeting and funding,” she said. And, she noted, “out of challenges come opportunities.”

Should Bush’s budget pass in its current form, Jewish vocational agencies will have to determine the impact and likely will develop new partnerships to compensate for reduced funding, she said.

Because the budget will be hammered out over the course of the year, it’s difficult to predict what the final appropriations will be. But most Jewish agencies that provide job assistance are preparing for cuts.

“I’m not sitting shiva right now,” said Ron Coun, executive director of Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest, N.J. The situation simply means the agency must find new strategies for funding, he said.

For example, an Internet search for grants after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks yielded funding for Coun’s agency from a private foundation associated with the Chicago Tribune.

The service also received emergency funding from the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American Jewish federation system.

Met Council, which gets 97 percent of its funding from state, local and federal governments, has seen a 25 percent cut in funds for vocational training in the last four to five years. At the same time it’s experienced a 15 to 20 percent increase in people seeking vocational services, particularly due to job losses associated with Sept. 11, said the group’s executive director, William Rapfogel.

“When so much of your budget is dependent on government,” cuts have “an enormous impact,” Rapfogel said.

In response, Met Council has focused its training efforts on jobs most likely to be filled, such as a program to prepare emergency medical technicians. Unlike training for computer programmers, which can take three months and funnels trainees into a highly competitive field, the two-week EMT training almost always leads to a job with benefits, Rapfogel said.

Met Council, which placed more than 1,200 people in jobs last year, is emphasizing its career counseling and scaling back its training programs.

Additionally, the group is lobbying at all levels of government.

Vivian Seigel, CEO of Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles, is planning to lobby government officials in Sacramento and Washington.

She’ll argue that it’s cheaper to pay the preventative costs of job training and placement than for the eventual imprisonment of an unemployed person who ends up committing a crime.

“Why not put the money up front rather than at the back end?” she said.

To that end, Seigel’s agency has beefed up its legislative committee, a volunteer board, to aid lobbying efforts, and has joined the advocacy efforts of other Jewish Vocational Services agencies around the country.

The agency also has hired an extra grant writer to “aggressively go after family foundations,” Seigel said.

It was foundation money, for example, that restored $100,000 to a $300,000 youth program that had been fully funded, and then completely cut, by the state.

Last year, that program gave a career to a young man suspended from high school who had taken up with friends who frequently ditched school.

One of the agency’s youth counselors picked up on the teen’s aptitude for manual labor and placed him in an automotive training program through a partner organization. Now he’s an assembly-line repair worker for a major automotive company.

Seigel believes Bush’s projected budget could mean a slight drop in government funding for her agency, which last year saw a 5 percent overall cut in government funds but suffered substantial cuts in some specific programs.

“The increase in demand for services and the decrease in dollars is always a struggle,” she said.

Although the economy appears to be improving, Seigel said her agency has seen a steady rise in clients in the past five years.

Workers who lost full-time jobs may have found only part-time work or are working for less money and continuing to seek better jobs.

“Even though the unemployment number might look better, it’s sort of a false better,” she said.

Still, the vocational service has found creative solutions: After losing funding for a program to help refugees and immigrants over 60 years old find part-time work, for example, the group began training those clients to become certified nursing assistants in home health care.

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