March 18, 2013

Maine 'skills gap' bill gets favorable reviews at hearing

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Business, education and policy leaders on Monday spoke out largely in favor of a work force development bill proposing $11 million in job training initiatives.

The 'skills gap' bill would . . .

Part A: Create a seamless credit transfer system between the University of Maine System and Maine Community College System. Requires schools to develop a common course numbering system. Financial impact: None.

Part B: Fund four new degree programs in the Maine Community College System. Financial impact: $320,000 in each year of the two-year budget.

Part C: Provide a one-time $2.3 million appropriation to the University of Maine System, to match $2.3 million from the system, for scholarships for adults with some credits to complete their degrees.

Part D: Establish a 19-member Task Force on Adult Learners, to help adults with some post-secondary education complete degrees or professional certificate. Financial impact: Per diem compensation for members.

Part E: Provide additional funding to the Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community to develop and coordinate work force development training and services statewide. Financial impact: $300,000 in each year of the budget.

Part F: Provide $200,000 in additional funding for Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, to be matched by funding from the business community. Financial impact: $100,000 in each year of the budget.

Part G: Provide additional funding to the Maine Community College System for the Maine Quality Centers program for additional training at small businesses. Financial impact: $125,000 in each year of the budget.

Part H: Require the election of members of career and technical education regional cooperative boards. Financial impact: None.

Part I: Provide the Department of Labor with $1.16 million for the Maine Apprenticeship Program.

Part J: Provide funding to establish the Maine Industry Partnerships initiative in the Department of Labor. The department would track and publish high-priority occupations, identify training needs, align resources between departments and employers. Create a committee to advise the department and the State Workforce Board. Provide staffing assistance to businesses and work with various state departments to develop job training and education curriculum to bolster worker skills. Financial impact: $1 million in each year of the budget.

Part K: Create the Maine Skills Academy and establish a 14-member board. The academy would evaluate and validate various forms of skills and qualifications a worker earns after certification or a degree program. Financial impact: None.

Part L: Provide funding to the community college system to reduce waiting lists. Priority given to reducing backlogs at Southern Maine Community College and York County Community College. Financial impact: $2 million in each year of the budget.

Part M: Require the Education Coordinating Committee, composed of higher-education leaders, to meet quarterly, and expand membership to include representatives from education organizations and associations. Financial impact: None.

"What you have established is a great starting point," said John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System. "This is critical for us to move forward," he said on part of the bill that gives the school $4 million to expand enrollment.

LD 90 includes an additional $4.9 million for the Maine Community College System and another $3.2 million for the Department of Labor.

More than a dozen people spoke Monday at a public hearing before the Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future.

LD 90 has a dozen specific initiatives, ranging from additional state appropriations for existing job training programs, to money to create new programs to aid workers.

One new program, at the Department of Labor, would have the department use job and training data to coordinate resources within state government and employers to get a comprehensive picture of the job market.

Several representatives from Maine companies also spoke in favor of the bill.

Highlighting the need for skilled workers, a Pratt & Whitney human resources officer told the committee the company faced "a cliff of employees getting ready to retire," even as few skilled workers applied for jobs at the jet engine manufacturer in North Berwick.

"One out of 20 applicants have some experience" in manufacturing, said Norman Ouellette. Most applicants have service sector backgrounds, and "those skills don't translate."

Pratt & Whitney, he noted, already has aggressive outreach, including internship programs, career development days at high schools and a partnership with higher education to train workers in manufacturing skills.

A Department of Labor spokeswoman, who said the department neither supported nor opposed the bill, noted that most Maine companies are much smaller. Eighty percent of Maine businesses have fewer than 10 employees; 90 percent have fewer than 20 employees.

Fitzsimmons said that's one reason additional job training funds for the community college system are so important.

"This is a great opportunity to become the training arm of those small businesses," he said.

The committee has not yet identified how the state would pay for the various initiatives.

But several speakers said the committee had already accomplished two major goals: pulling together various job training programs around the state under one roof, and focusing attention on the need to ramp up job training efforts through greater coordination.

Job training programs have "been lost in several committees and it is all in pieces," Fitzsimmons said. "You have offered – cohesion."

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, co-chairman of the committee, has said the committee does not expect all of the proposals to pass. The bill eventually will have to go to the Legislature's budget-writing committee.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6638 or at:

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