ATLANTA -- The state is spending $35 million a year on financial incentives to students in hopes of addressing Georgia's work-force needs, but virtually none of the money is going to the occupations with the greatest shortages, according to a new state audit.
Most of the funds are aimed at helping students become doctors and teachers, and some of the incentive programs are decades old. But state research shows a more pressing need for plumbers, computer programmers and other occupations with less political pull.
Auditors found the Educational Incentive Programs have been instituted in a piecemeal fashion over more than 40 years, and that insufficient evidence is available to tell if the efforts are effective.
"There is a need for a more comprehensive approach. No state agency is looking at work-force needs," said Scott Owens of the state Department of Audits.
Mr. Owens went over the findings for the General Assembly's Budgetary Responsibility Oversight Committee, a group of leading lawmakers who have been reviewing state government programs the past few years.
In all, there are 16 grant, scholarship and cancelable loan programs considered to be part of the Educational Incentives Programs.
The 16 are administered by five state agencies. Ten target future physicians. About 6,950 students received the grants or loans in 1997.
In some cases, such as the HOPE Teacher Scholarship and the State Medical Education Board Loan Repayment Program, recipients are required to work in Georgia after graduation.
The audit said Georgia has more teachers per capita than the national average, and fewer doctors.
"None of the independent programs were responsible for monitoring or addressing the overall work-force needs of the state, and the individual programs also lacked the authority to make the types of strategic changes necessary to maximize the state's overall effectiveness in addressing work-force shortages," the audit said.
"Each Educational Incentive Program is primarily focused on its assigned areas of critical work-force need, and there is no incentive for existing programs to seek out other areas of need," it said.
A 1997 study by the University System Board of Regents identified paraprofessional teacher aides, computer systems analysts, computer programmers, other management support personnel and personnel/training/labor specialists as the top five areas of work-force shortages in the state.
A review of Department of Labor data by state auditors also found several occupations of critical need that do not require college degrees, such as electrician, plumber and auto mechanic.
With the exception of a computer programmer effort in Columbus, the audit said, "The state has no incentive programs for these most-in-need work-force areas."
The HOPE Teacher Program has re-evaluated which teaching areas have critical needs and dropped six fields from the scholarships.
Such incentive programs are funded by lawmakers, who make such educational decisions after being lobbied by interest groups. Doctors, for instance, have among the Capitol's most prominent and well-funded lobby groups, including the Medical Association of Georgia.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, said legislators have met with the groups handling the medical incentives to seek a consensus on problems with the programs.
"The only conclusion we came up with was we need a referee," he said.
"Every group that has a constituent (for the program) is going to be politically charged," said House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, no relation.