9 Questions for Georgia’s Labor Commissioner Candidates

Mark Butler (R)

Republican incumbent Labor Commissioner Mark Butler was first elected to the office in 2010. Before that, he spent eight years in the state House.

1. Like most elected officials, labor commissioners can bring their own projects or initiatives to the job. What would you do that’s outside the formal job description?

We have already created several “outside-of-the-box” programs at the Georgia Department of Labor. First is the GeorgiaBEST (Business Employability Skills Training) certificate program. The GeorgiaBEST soft-skills program includes training in productivity, goal setting, time management, problem solving, self-management skills, and more. These types of skills can help all Georgians across all professions excel in their job search and keep that job once they are successful in their job search. This program is currently being utilized in over 200 high schools and 30 middle schools. We have expanded into several of our technical colleges and correctional re-entry programs.

We also have our Customized Recruitment program that serves businesses and job seekers across the state. This program assists new and expanding businesses in finding the talent they need to be successful as fast and efficiently as possible. The end result is businesses are able to grow, and Georgians are put back to work much quicker. In response to the needs of existing Georgia companies who are experiencing growth and expanding their operations within the state, we have developed a new program, Customized Recruitment X. CRX will provide the same expert level, customized recruitment services to Georgia’s existing valued businesses. Our no-cost recruitment strategy will encourage companies to reexamine high cost, high-stress recruitment efforts, saving them millions in recruitment costs.

To assist unemployed and under-employed Georgians, we created our Special Workforce Assistance Team that holds job fair-like events that bring in extra experts to help those job seekers who are struggling with their job search. At these events, job seekers can get help with resume writing, mock interviews, soft skills training, and one-on-one job search assistance. This team was especially helpful in some of our hardest hit areas coming out of the recession.

2. Most folks know the Department of Labor as the place you go to file for unemployment benefits. What’s the biggest difficulty or need for folks who are struggling to find work, and how do you remove that barrier?

We’ve been working to change the public’s perception of our offices from being known as the “unemployment office” to being known as the “employment office.” There can be several reasons why someone who is currently unemployed is struggling to find work: mismatched skills, transportation issues, and/or lack of soft skills. These are not all the reasons why someone may be struggling to find work, but these are the ones that we hear of the most. For mismatched skills, we work with our local workforce partners, including and most importantly the Technical College System of Georgia. Transportation is especially an issue in rural Georgia, which is where we have worked with communities to facilitate creative ideas to alleviate transportation barriers. When it comes to the soft skills issue that we see as the number one issue keeping someone from getting a job, we have recently rolled out GeorgiaBEST@Home, which is designed for individuals, parents, mentors, after-school programs, faith-based organizations, civic groups, etc. And we also have our Special Workforce Assistance Team which helps an individual prepare for job fairs and job interviews.

3. In the coming years, what do you see as the biggest opportunities for Georgia workers? Where are the jobs going to be, and how do workers get ready for them?

The biggest opportunity for Georgia workers in the future is going to be moving up and into better jobs. As we see Georgia grow more jobs, there will be more opportunities for individuals to move out of lower-paying jobs into the higher-paying jobs. To help do that, we are currently working with the Georgia Technical College System to help promote and identify short-term training programs that can give individuals added skills that will qualify them for better-paying jobs. As we work with employers across the state to identify their needs going forward, we are identifying a lot of jobs that have previously required minimal skill sets now require more training due to computerization and robotics. We are also helping those workers who are currently underemployed find those jobs that better suit the skill sets that they already have by holding hiring events and job fairs during less traditional hours and times. For example, coming out of the recession, most job fairs were held during working hours due to the fact that we had a large number of unemployed individuals. Today things are different, so now we hold hiring events and job fairs after normal work hours and on weekends to help those individuals who are currently working find a better job to help them be more self-sufficient.

4. It’s hard to find farmworkers in Georgia, even in bad times, when unemployment is high. How can you help address this issue for the agriculture industry?

We already help the agricultural industry across Georgia by hosting recruitment events and also assisting a lot of the farms with their H-2A programs (a visa used by farmers to hire temporary foreign workers). We have dedicated agricultural representatives around the state who work with our farmers, helping them with their workforce needs and also [advising them on] some of the federal regulations. We also work in partnership with most of the agricultural associations throughout the state to help keep our farmers informed of new regulations and to keep us informed on issues that they may be facing.

5. Some skilled jobs are hard to fill too—truck driver, welder, and so on. What can you do to help get unemployed Georgians into a place where they can fill those jobs?

As previously mentioned, we have a lot of programs that help recruit talent for these industries. Furthermore, we also work with the Technical College System of Georgia to help them market some of the many opportunities they offer to Georgians to get additional training. Georgia is very lucky to have the HOPE Grant, which can provide funding for training for a lot of these skilled jobs. That being said, GDOL strives to stay ahead of the issue. Currently, unemployed Georgians have several options as far as learning a new skilled trade. GDOL offers on-the-job-training opportunities in a variety of industries. We also allow UI (unemployment insurance) recipients to become “claimant trainees,” which means that while drawing UI, individuals may attend an approved college, technical school, or certified training program in order to make themselves more employable. UI recipients may qualify for funding via WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) that covers 100 percent of the cost of this training education. Lastly, we are currently working on a new and exciting partnership with the Technical College System of Georgia to refer candidates to their FastTrack Program. FastTrack offers innovative training to qualified candidates in various industries. This training can be completed in a much faster time frame than traditional certificate or degree programs.

6. Automation has the potential to kill millions of jobs, but also provide benefits. What does Georgia need to do to prepare for what could be a major shift in the types of jobs available to Georgians?

I have visited with hundreds of manufacturers across the state during the last several years, and I can tell you that automation is already here. Even with new automation doing away with some manual processes that used to be performed by humans, we are still seeing good job growth in the manufacturing sector. The good news is a lot of the jobs that were created after the automation are better paying jobs. The challenge going forward will be encouraging individuals to further their education to get more technical skills, so they will be able to fill these better paying jobs in manufacturing. While predicting future job loss and job creation is both difficult and risky, it’s best to have a plan in place to embrace the potential automation. I believe that Georgia is on the right track in preparing for the shift. We have state-of-the-art colleges, technical schools, and training programs that are currently training the talented Georgians that live here. While it’s true that automation may eliminate some positions, it will also create others. With innovative training, we will have the needed candidate pool to move into the new roles, which may include positions supervising automated technology, troubleshooting, repairing, and maintaining new automation systems, and preparing Georgia’s infrastructure to accommodate automated changes such as self-driving automobiles and semi-trucks. It is imperative that we continue to retrain our talent to stay ahead of the upcoming changes.

7. Let’s talk about “misclassified” workers, when someone is treated as an employee but is classified by their employer as a “contractor.” The employer evades things like employment taxes and the worker misses out on benefits. What’s your approach to finding and ending employee misclassification? Is Georgia looking hard enough to find these violators?

Just like the IRS will never catch everyone that “cheats,” it’s almost impossible to catch every business that misclassifies workers. However, we have greatly improved our ability to find these violations. First of all, we have random audits conducted by field tax staff on an annual basis to verify the accurate reporting of gross and taxable wages paid to workers in the state of Georgia. These audits are randomly selected by an internal electronic audit data table. We also do request audits conducted by field tax staff based on complaints and reports received by phone, email, or online through the GDOL Online UI Fraud and Abuse Report. Request audits are also conducted on businesses that have been identified as habitual underreporters or who have had numerous worker misclassification liability determinations based on wage investigations. We have also added some new technology with our Aggregate Workforce Analytics Reporting Engine. AWARE software has a Misclassified Worker Module that identifies inconsistent data, fraud schemes, and suspected underreporting by an employer to avoid paying proper UI taxes. We recently signed an agreement with US Department of Labor to have joint enforcement of statutes as well as the exchange of information which could increase the identification of misclassified workers and/or employer underreporting or fraud.

8. Let’s take the other side, the gig economy, where folks get by not with a traditional career, but by piecing together jobs. A labor commissioner is supposed to help people find work and increase their self-sufficiency. How does this gig phenomenon make that harder—or, easier?

I tend to think the gig economy has helped make a lot of individuals self-sufficient. Not only that, it gives a lot of individuals flexibility in hours so that they can spend more time with family. This new phenomenon comes with some pitfalls. The one thing workers benefit from the most is flexibility with their schedules and the type of work they choose. For many people, this independence is attractive because they have more control over their own lifestyle. They work where they want to work and usually when they want to work. The millennial workforce seems to gravitate towards this concept. The other side to this coin is finding fair compensation. The bottom line is to find the perfect fit—an employer or opportunity that recognizes your contribution and values and compensates you accordingly, and not to settle until you have found that match. It definitely isn’t for everyone, but it does fill a need for those who like less structure in their work life.

9. What are the biggest issues that the labor commissioner will need to face in the next four years?

The biggest challenge going forward for the labor department is going to be contending with an ever-tightening labor market, which is in some ways a good problem to have. A tightening labor market, like we are seeing right now, leads to better wages for workers across the state; however, it is not without challenges. If the labor market gets too tight and it becomes too difficult for businesses to find talent to fill the job openings that we have, it will be almost impossible to attract new jobs to Georgia. We have a plan going forward to make sure that we are able to fill these new jobs that we are seeing created every single day with the programs that we have developed here at the Georgia Department of Labor. Programs like GeorgiaBEST, Customized Recruitment, and Customized Recruitment X, are helping to bridge employers and job seekers in innovative ways that we’re not seeing in other states. We’ve even had companies that have come to Georgia that we have helped fill their jobs with Georgians ask us if we would help them fill the jobs that they have open in other states. Obviously this is not something we can do, but it is a great compliment to the services provided by the men and women of the Georgia Department of Labor.