Politics

March 18, 2013

Interested parties back Maine work-force investments

The $11 million bill seeks funding for current and new initiatives to increase training for workers.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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

John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, said a part of the bill that would give the community colleges $4 million to expand enrollment "is critical for us to move forward."

The bill, L.D. 90, includes an additional $4.9 million for the 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.

L.D. 90 proposes specific initiatives ranging from additional state appropriations for existing job training programs to money for new programs to aid workers.

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

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

Highlighting the need for skilled workers, a human resources officer from Pratt & Whitney told the committee that the jet engine manufacturer in North Berwick faces "a cliff of employees getting ready to retire," as few skilled workers apply for jobs.

"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 for manufacturing.

A Department of Labor spokeswoman, who said the department neither supports nor opposes 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 it's so important to add job training funds for the community college system.

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

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

An executive from Cianbro said the company supports the work of the committee.

"Connecting work force development with economic prosperity is critical to our state's future," said Tim Walton, director of external affairs and public policy for the construction services company.

"Trying to determine which of these ideas should be funded, and at what level, will be challenging to say the least," Walton said. "Setting priorities is always tough when they require a funding source. If you continue to approach the concepts outlined in this legislation from a bipartisan viewpoint, we believe there will only be positive and worthwhile outcomes."

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce also supports the bill. A legislative liaison said business leaders have told the chamber that they face a significant job-skills gap.

"Many companies report having jobs, well-paying jobs at that, but lack qualified candidates to fill the positions," said Jessica Laliberte.

"Applicants lack basic skills in areas such as how to dress for interviews and don't possess basic math, writing and communication skills."

Several speakers said the committee has already accomplished two major goals: pulling together various job training programs around Maine and focusing attention on the need to increase job training efforts through greater coordination.

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

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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