State awaits federal approval for revised job training plan

Posted Jan. 31, 2013, at 5:04 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Labor has submitted a revised plan to the federal government that proposes to change the way federal workforce training funds are allocated around the state.

In its strategic plan under the federal Workforce Investment Act, the labor department proposes to split the state’s current four regional workforce investment boards, which oversee job training programs in their designated areas, into eight. The plan would also task regional chambers of commerce with soliciting input from businesses in the eight regions in hopes that job training programs can respond more closely to industry demand.

State labor officials say the updated plan is an effort to streamline the administration of job training programs in Maine and spend a larger portion of job training funds directly on training, rather than overhead. The Department of Labor says 20 percent of the federal job training money it receives goes directly into job training.

“I find it very difficult to find qualified people in Maine who have the technical, business and analytical capabilities necessary for the work our clients demand,” Mary Kate Scott, who runs a consulting company that works with health care organizations, wrote in public comments filed with the plan. “I would be keen to have a better match to training and skills and an increase in funding to training from administration.”

But critics of the plan, including participants in the current local workforce boards, say they have doubts that the new structure will reduce overhead. In addition, county commissioners involved with their local workforce boards say the Department of Labor didn’t consult with them in assembling the plan as federal law requires.

“The governor still wants to implement a system of eight local areas, but now more local workforce investment boards would potentially exist, creating a system where costs are significantly increased,” Rep. Mike McClellan, a Raymond Republican, wrote in a comment filed with the plan.

“We continue to believe that a plan that is disruptive to the current [workforce investment board] structure in our area is counterproductive,” wrote John Porter, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

The plan submitted to federal officials Wednesday is the Department of Labor’s second attempt at updating its strategic plan. Federal officials rejected the first, submitted in September 2012, after it proposed eliminating the local workforce investment boards and replacing them with a single, statewide board to oversee workforce training programs and finances.

In its updated plan, the Department of Labor proposes to drop the measure that would replace the local boards with a statewide board, which would have required a special waiver. Instead, the eight local boards proposed in the plan would oversee job training programs in the eight regions the state uses to market itself to tourists. The regions are also used by the state’s chambers of commerce.

The U.S. Department of Labor rejected Maine’s first strategic plan in part because of concerns about the state’s ability to directly oversee the distribution of federal job training funds. Federal officials also raised concerns about “scores of comments and concerns opposing the state’s waiver request” that were submitted as public comments in response to the plan.

The public comments submitted Wednesday included more support. Of the 106 comments the Department of Labor received, the agency says 60 supported the plan, 35 opposed it and 11 were neutral. Supportive comments came largely from businesses, a handful of lawmakers and officials with local chambers of commerce.

“It only makes sense that the chambers of commerce who have the most day-to-day interaction with the general public and our business leaders act as intermediaries to ensure that the funding has the most impact and is used where it is most needed,” wrote Traci Gauthier, executive director of the Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.

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