A bill that would create a new kind of job-training program to help the unemployed get back to work faster is advancing in the Arizona Senate.

The idea is to let people receiving unemployment benefits switch careers or learn new skills by volunteering for short-term, unpaid on-the-job training.

The program, called Return to Work, would particularly help the long-term unemployed and older workers who need to try a different career in order to get hired, said bill sponsor Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, a Tucson Democrat.

Here’s how it could work:

A person receiving unemployment benefits could volunteer to work 20-32 hours a week for up to six weeks. The on-the-job training would be unpaid, but the person would continue to receive unemployment benefits and continue to look for work.

An employer with at least one full-time job opening could sign an agreement with the trainee for structured and supervised job training. The employer would have to agree that the trainee wouldn’t displace another employee or cost another worker a promotion.

The state would provide a program manager, orientation for the trainee and workers’ compensation insurance.

The Return to Work bill passed the Senate Appropriations and Senate Commerce committees. Republicans Al Melvin and Don Shooter support the bill, Cajero Bedford said.

“We really need more opportunities for people to get trained and get jobs. The concept is a pretty good concept,” said Gregg Johnson, chairman of the Pima County Workforce Investment Board.

He said the board would like to see specific rules about the quality of the training programs and the quality of the wages paid by the employers.

Cajero Bedford said there should also be rules, set by the Department of Economic Security, that would prevent abuse, likely allowing an employer two tries to find a new hire.

Carlos Ruiz, owner of HT Metals and chairman of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, supports the bill and said he would likely participate in the Return to Work program.

His metal-distributing business will be ready to hire someone mid-year. Entry-level workers can be hard to find, and an unskilled new hire needs about a month of training on how to use equipment, Ruiz said.

He could pay a temp agency to find someone, but Return to Work would give him a way to screen a potential hire and give an unemployed worker a chance, he said.

The entry-level work can set a person on a job path to become a machinist, a job that pays higher wages, he said.

Georgia’s experience

Cajero Bedford said Return to Work is modeled on successful programs in Georgia and New Hampshire.

The Georgia program began in 2003 and included a $100 stipend to help trainees cover the cost of gas or child care in addition to unemployment benefits.

By 2010, more than 1,000 people a year were taking part in the program, saving that state’s unemployment trust fund about $1 million a year, according to articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The program gained national attention and several other states sought to replicate its success.

But then the program was expanded to include all jobless workers, not just those who received benefits. The program grew rapidly, the success rate fell, and ultimately the program was cut and phased out when it became too expensive.

Arizona would limit its Return to Work program to people who receive benefits. Around 25 percent of Arizona’s unemployed receive benefit payments, according to Arizona’s Office of Employment and Population Statistics.

The New Hampshire program, which began in 2010, allows someone to volunteer to work for up to 24 hours a week for up to six weeks.

The program had 168 agreements between trainees and employers in 2012 and 131 agreements in 2013, and most trainees are hired, said Pamela Szacik, director of the Employment Service Bureau at New Hampshire Employment Security.

In the past year, the program was expanded to include people who are not receiving unemployment benefits, she said.

The agreements are collected at local-level job centers and a program manager checks on the trainee and employer at least every other week, which is important to monitor quality, Szacik said.

Trainees like the program because it gives them a chance to show their skills and work ethic to a potential employer, she said, and employers like it because they can “try before you buy.”

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@gmail.com or 573-4251. On Twitter: @BeckyPallack