Put ME to Work invests in job training

By Ramona du Houx

A November 2014 report, “Preparing Maine’s Workforce,” cited the availability of a skilled workforce as the single greatest factor among corporate executives in deciding to plan new facilities, relocate or expand. This Maine Development Foundation and Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s document also advocated for the attainment of a post-secondary credential, stating that average employment for those with associate degrees will see the highest net growth in the next ten years.

With many of Maine’s workforce nearing retirement age, new workers are needed to fill their jobs. Add this to the training required by advances in technology and the state is faced with a shortage of skilled workers.

“Some companies, like Central Maine Power, have told me that 50 percent of their workforce are due to retire soon. The average age of our trade workers, like plumbers, electricians, sheet rockers, and others, is over 50,” said Speaker of the House Mark Eves. “Like state workers, trades people are starting to retire in droves. Our economic strategy—as a state—needs to look at this nonpartisan issue. For small and large businesses it’s self-preservation.”

According to the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) Center for Workforce Research and Information, jobs that require a post-secondary credential are expected to produce 60 percent of Maine’s net job growth through 2022. According to another MDOL report, the growth of the Maine economy during the next two decades will rely in large part on the quantity and quality of the workforce. Students and new employees will need more technology skills for an increasingly integrated workplace and highly competitive global economy.

The speaker’s Put ME to Work law will invest $1 million from state funds, matched by $1 million in private funds in job training programs that create public-private partnerships to develop a trained workforce in high-demand fields, such as logging, health care and precision manufacturing. Some of the funds will be used for scholarships. The $2 million will be allocated over the two years.

“We’ve heard from employers and workers across the state about the best way to improve our economy. The message is the same from North Berwick to Frenchville: invest in our workers and businesses,” said Eves. “A skilled and well-trained workforce is key to success for both workers and businesses in our state.”

Businesses in need of skilled workers would provide 50 percent of the program’s startup costs, which would be matched by the state. Students who complete the program must be awarded a degree or certificate that is universally recognized by the industry for which the training is designed. It’s a “down payment on growing the middle class,” said Eves.

Participating employers must agree to hire successful trainees at wages at least $2.50 higher than the state minimum wage of $7.50. And rules on how the community colleges would assess businesses’ job training proposals will be established.

Maine Community College System MCCS graduates can expect to earn salaries that range from $26,000 to $48,000 statewide.

“Community colleges help widen the number of young people and nontraditional students who can attend higher education and thereby widens the benefits of higher education for the entire economy,” said Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci.

The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine testified in support of the bill, as the logging industry grew by five percent in 2014, while contractors were held back because of the deficit of logging technicians.

The idea is not entirely new, as other states have adopted similar programs. In Maine it builds on established programs.

Through Lifelong Learning Accounts (LiLAs) employers match employee contributions for education and training. “An educated and well-trained workforce is key to the economic prosperity of Maine,” said Former MDOL Commissioner Laura Fortman in a Maine Insights interview in 2007. “As technology and globalization continue to change the types of jobs in our economy and the way we do work, LiLAs provide opportunities for workers to upgrade and adapt their skills.”

The state has previously used bonds to back expanding community college programs, working with local partners. Southern Maine Community College opened a branch at Brunswick Landing, focused on composite technologies, as they were identified as a growing sector in boat, airplane, windmill, and bridge manufacturing. Many of those graduates have walked into jobs in boatbuilding and other composites sectors. The SMCC program is oversubscribed because of its successful training and job placement. Culinary, agricultural, nursing, weatherization, and business incubator courses, among others, have been added to community colleges across the state.

In 2003, Governor John Baldacci started a Workforce Cabinet and established the Maine Community College System, which won strong bipartisan endorsement by the 121st Maine Legislature. That marked the beginning of an era of major growth in higher education. Between 2002 and the fall of 2012, enrollment grew to 18,561, by 83 percent—creating more opportunities for workers to improve their skills and incomes.

But since the LePage administration, new bonds for any of these types of programs have been pretty much nonexistent—impacting Maine’s economy.

According to an analysis released by Pew Charitable Trusts, Maine has seen a meager recovery from the Great Recession—second only to West Virginia. Since August of 2010, Maine saw modest growth in employment—2.66 percent since the lowest point of the recession. Wages in Maine also lag—ranking 20 percent lower, on average, than wages across the United States.

“At Eastern Maine Community College we partner with dozens of businesses and industry groups each year to develop an educated workforce for good jobs here in Maine. This includes large organizations like The Jackson Laboratory, where our trainings in teamwork and management help dozens of employees to advance within the lab each year … Partnerships with small business are just as important,” wrote Lawrence Barrett, Ed.D., president of EMCC, in a Bangor Daily News op-ed.

What is new about Put ME to Work is having the industry or business step up to match state funding for the initial new classes—instead of for one individual at a time—with LiLA accounts.

Speaker Eves based Put ME to Work on a 2013 partnership between defense contractor Pratt & Whitney and York County Community College, which helped to develop YCCC’s precision-machining technology program. The state invested $330,000 into the machinist-training program, which has already graduated skilled machinists, who have local job offers or internships.

“So many people across the state have the passion, energy and insight to make this happen; they just need a partner,” said Eves.

The Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future identified ways to address the skills gap, during the 126th Legislature. Put ME to Work draws on their findings to create an industry partnership program to align universities and businesses.

Since January of 2015, a bipartisan group of lawmakers with Eves met with employers, workers, and community leaders across the state. And more meetings are planned.

“By investing in training for workers and students in every region of the state, we are putting a down payment on growing the middle class,” said Eves.

In June, the federal government awarded Maine $3.66 million for statewide programs to help the unemployed still suffering from the effects of the Recession find work and training, particularly in the areas of health care, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

“Developing job training programs that keep up with a fast-changing labor market is key,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez.

On a national level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 15 million new jobs that require a college education will be created by 2020.