Job-search workshops for unemployed food stamp recipients are enjoying about a 50 percent success rate in Utah, according to an eligibility specialist in the Assistance Payments Administration.

Eligibility specialist Bill Biggs said Utah began running about 10 job-search workshops each month across the state nearly 18 months ago. The workshops teach such job-search skills as resume writing, interview skills, tapping hidden job markets and more.The federal government has mandated programs to help able-bodied food stamp recipients find work or get training through job search, workfare programs, on-the-job or vocational training, job clubs, education, pre-employment training and other programs. Each state designs its own program.

Workshop participation is mandatory for food stamp recipients who do not fall under certain exemptions. Exemptions are granted to those who earn more than $75 a month, have a physical disability, have children younger than 6, receive unemployment compensation or are participating in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. Individual caseworkers also have "a certain amount of discretion" in granting other exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

In parts of the state where no classes are taught and transportation to a workshop would be difficult or impractical, recipients are also excused.

"Even with all these exemptions," said Biggs, "more than half of our participants are there voluntarily."

A few advocates for the homeless have, in the past, complained that forcing people who don't even have homes or basic essentials to participate in a job-search workshop is impractical and uses up time that could actually be spent seeking work. Proponents of the workshop countered with the argument that improving job-search skills is the first step toward getting a job and improving the quality of life.

In recent months, both sides have seemed fairly happy with the exemptions granted and the effectiveness of the program.

"Just as society has an obligation to help those in need, program recipients have an obligation to help themselves," said David B. Alspach, regional administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service's Mountain Plains office. The office is the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that administers food stamps in 10 states, including Utah.

"This emphasis on employment and training will help food stamp recipients enter the work force."