LePage aims to cut admin costs for job-training programs, include local businesses

Posted Aug. 29, 2012, at 6:23 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 30, 2012, at 1:50 a.m.
Gov. Paul LePage in Rockland in March 2012.
Gov. Paul LePage in Rockland in March 2012. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — After Gov. Paul LePage criticized the state’s workforce-training boards for spending only 20 percent of their funds on actual job training, a new strategic plan calls for a single statewide board to set policy and oversee program finances.

The plan, which would eliminate the state’s four current regional workforce boards in favor of the statewide panel, also charges local and regional chambers of commerce with regularly calling together businesses in their areas to hear from them about what they need from workers.

The regional boards’ current operators are concerned that a single board charged with setting statewide policy will overlook each region’s unique workforce and business needs. But labor officials in the LePage administration say their plan will lead to more input from businesses so job training programs can respond to industry demand.

Gov. LePage appointed the State Workforce Investment Board last December after learning that, in recent years, about 20 percent of federal job training funds for Maine was spent on actual job training while much of the remainder was spent on administration. He said a single, statewide board would offer closer oversight of the spending of those federal workforce dollars.

But the local boards the statewide panel will replace say they’ve been making progress in recent years reducing the amount they spend on overhead, improving job placement rates for trainees and closely involving businesses in their decision making.

“We are all in agreement that we need to be constantly improving,” said Joanna Russell, executive director of the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board, which serves Hancock, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. “It would not be beneficial for any of the local boards to pour cement on any policy or any practice that we implement. We need to be ready to constantly move with the changes that occur.”

The existing, regional boards are better suited to carry out improvements that work for their respective areas, Russell said.

“If you’re going to create training systems and policy in northern Maine, it cannot be identical as you would create policy for southern Maine,” she said. “Portland and Presque Isle are completely different.”

The officials from the State Workforce Investment Board and the Department of Labor who have crafted the new strategic plan say its reforms will result in more local input and help job training programs better respond to the needs in their immediate areas.

Instead of the four regional workforce investment boards, the plan tasks chambers of commerce in eight Maine regions with regularly convening businesses — both chamber members and nonchamber members — so they can discuss, among other topics, the skills on which job training programs should focus. The chambers of commerce would then inform the statewide workforce board about those conversations.

“By having eight smaller areas, they will be easier to access. They will be closer to home,” said Garret Oswald, State Workforce Investment Board director. “The conversations there will be much more locally nuanced.”

“We wanted to reach out to more people, to more employers,” said Fred Webber, who chairs the State Workforce Investment Board. “We thought, ‘doesn’t it make sense to go from four to eight regions around the state?’”

The eight Maine regions will align with the eight regions the state uses to market itself to tourists.

The four regions for local workforce investment boards were formed in 1998 under the federal Workforce Investment Act.

In the south, the region stretches from York County to Waldo County. The northernmost region serves Aroostook and Washington counties, and the western region serves Androscoggin, Franklin, Kennebec, Oxford and Somerset counties. In the Bangor area, the workforce board serves Penobscot, Piscataquis and Hancock counties.

Those regional boards generally contract with providers in their area to provide job training. In the Bangor region, the Tri-County board contracts with the Eastern Maine Development Corp.

Chambers of commerce are a natural fit for gathering businesses and collecting information about their needs, said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Local chambers will reach out to members and nonmembers when planning workforce investment meetings, he said.

“They represent the business community, and they’ll be asked to convene the business community,” he said. “The role that has evolved for local and regional chambers is really one that is very compatible to their mission.”

The State Workforce Investment Board includes representatives from businesses, the state Legislature, higher education, labor unions and other organizations.

Before the board can officially take on the responsibility of overseeing Maine’s workforce training programs, the LePage administration needs special permission from the U.S. Department of Labor, since federal law currently assigns that responsibility in Maine to the four regional workforce boards.

The strategic plan includes that waiver request. The workforce investment board is accepting public comments on the plan through Sept. 2 and expects to submit it to the federal government by Sept. 15.

Comments can be sent to SWIB.dol@maine.gov.

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