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Replacing Iowa Workforce Development offices with computers has improved access, says Branstad

Closing 36 Iowa Workforce Development offices across the state and replacing them with computer terminals has meant greater access to services for Iowans while saving about $6.5 million, the head of the department and Gov. Terry Branstad say.

Year-to-year data show the number of services provided by IWD has increased by about 10,000 per month due to the new “virtual access points.” Those workstations, about 1,100 of them, are now available in 370 locations across the state.

The stand-alone computers allow services to be available 12 to 15 hours a day – including on Saturdays – through phone calls and Internet chat. They’re located primarily at libraries, places that provide veteran services, community colleges and state government buildings.

“Iowa Workforce Development has succeeded in developing a delivery system that serves Iowans locally and more efficiently while still providing professional workforce staff connections through the use of technology,” Branstad said.

Teresa Wahlert, head of IWD, said the goal is 500 computers by the end of the year. The remaining 19 physical offices – down from 55 at the beginning of the year – will remain open for the time being.

“I think that will be a constant for many months and then we’ll see what new technology happens or what happens on the federal side,” Wahlert said. “Because the federal side really dictates a lot of the offices and their locations.”

In August, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained that a cooperative agreement between the U.S. departments of agriculture and labor will provide some opportunities for rural workers, but the effort wouldn’t serve as a replacement for shuttered IWD offices.

Wahlert said she’s not concerned about less face-to-face interaction between IWD employees and job searchers, and the success of the program will be judged on usage and how much it costs IWD to get a person to a job.

Plans are for 75 people to be laid off from the state agency as the move from physical offices to virtual access points is completed.

“We’re going into a generation of folks who are a lot more comfortable either on the phone or texting or using technology, and I think that’s pretty evident with the results we’ve had so far,” Wahlert said.

A lawsuit challenging Branstad’s veto of funding for the workforce offices is working its way through the court system, but Branstad is confident he’ll beat that.

“In the meantime, instead of fighting the battles of the past, we want to look to the future and make sure we’ve got a delivery system that meets the needs of Iowans in the best and most efficient and economical way possible,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers have pledged to fight for the now closed offices in the 2012 General Assembly.

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