By Jessica Hall
The state wants to overhaul its work force training system to funnel more of the roughly $9 million in annual funding into skills training for in-demand jobs and get more feedback from businesses about job openings.
The proposal, which is open for public comment until Tuesday, has been criticized by the local boards that counsel unemployed people and provide training, which say it would tax an already burdened system.
"It's a great goal, but there are fixed costs in the system," said Ryan Pelletier, executive director of the Aroostook-Washington Workforce Investment Board. "If our goal is to serve the unemployed, this makes it more difficult to do that."
Under the five-year plan, the state would be broken into eight work force regions. The State Workforce Investment Board would work with chambers of commerce in the eight areas to hear from businesses what jobs are available and what training is needed.
The current structure has four local work force groups, formed in 1998 under the federal Workforce Investment Act.
In November, the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration rejected a plan that would have created a single statewide panel to handle work force issues.
The latest proposal to overhaul the work force training system comes as Gov. Paul LePage tries to improve Maine's economy and attract more businesses to the state.
The overhaul also is driven by LePage's desire for more of the funding to go to specific job training, rather than general help in areas such as resume writing or interviewing skills.
Two years ago, the average percentage of funding going to skills training statewide was just 15 percent. Last year, the average was about 20 percent. The new plan sets a target of 40 percent at the end of five years.
Most of the money is used for salaries, administrative expenses and general skills training.
"There's a little bit of irony in it. On one hand, they want to be increasing the amount of money to go to training, but they're also adding regions," said Mike Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., one of the four local workforce investment boards. "We don't quarrel with the idea of partnering with chambers of commerce. But in order to go to eight regions, we're adding infrastructure and administration."
Bourret said Coastal Counties Workforce already needs grants and additional resources to provide vocational training, such as a recent program to retrain 300 people for jobs in advanced manufacturing, composite technology, medical equipment manufacturing, computer system design, and scientific research and development.
Coastal Counties Workforce said it works with job seekers in six counties and may handle 75,000 visitors a year. Of those people, about 2,000 may get enrolled in job counseling programs and about 75 percent to 80 percent of those people find jobs, Bourret said.
Bourret estimated that 30 percent of Coastal Counties Workforce's funding gets used for job training.
Comparing how money is used in other states is difficult because the federal program doesn't require states to track how much money is allocated to training, said Garret Oswald, director of the Maine Jobs Council in the state Department of Labor.
In developing goals, the state looked at places that do track training dollars on their own and found that the training dollars average about 30 percent to 50 percent of total funding, Oswald said.
Among the concerns with the current system is that local work force investment boards have too much autonomy to set policies so that services available across the state are inconsistent, said Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz.
The chambers of commerce would provide information to the work force boards about local business needs and job openings.
"The chambers have a very appropriate role to play to inform," said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. "We can help address some of the jobs that are going unfilled."
Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: