There is an opening for the LePage administration to make improvements to the state’s job training system. With a declining labor force, Maine employers face a crunch: They need people who have dropped out of the workforce to rejoin it.
Many people who don’t have jobs or aren’t currently looking for them, however, are likely among the most difficult to employ. They may have felony records, live in poverty or not have a high school degree. It’s precisely the role of job training to help get them ready for the workplace.
Instead of asking the three boards that oversee regional job training efforts what they need to help job seekers with a wide range of challenges, however, the LePage administration proposed to dismantle them and then defund them.
Without alerting the workforce boards beforehand of any concerns, LePage petitioned the Trump administration to allow him to replace them with just one statewide entity that would oversee job training, supplemented with volunteer groups throughout the state that would provide information about local workforce needs.
They are currently funded with federal money from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, not state funds.
On the surface it sounded like a good idea: reduce administrative redundancy and put the savings toward preparing future workers. But the reality is that the move wouldn’t save much money, if it saved any at all.
That’s because the workforce boards are already made up of volunteers, with some paid staff. If LePage expected volunteers or current state employees to do the work of full-time staff, he would be setting the boards up for failure. Getting rid of staff would also eliminate the very people capable of drawing down more money for direct services for job seekers — something the state hasn’t done to the same degree.
For example, Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., which oversees training on behalf of the Coastal Counties Workforce Board for job seekers in the midcoast and southern Maine, has administered a total of $77.8 million in workforce funds since its inception, with 44 percent of that sum obtained through competitive grants.
“Regrettably, the Maine Department of Labor has failed to bring in competitive funding even close to our accomplishments,” Coastal Counties, based in Brunswick, wrote to the federal government after learning of LePage’s proposal to eliminate its board.
Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Labor rejected LePage’s proposal. It simply didn’t have the legal authority to get rid of local boards, it said. Consolidation is possible, however, and has been done before. It just can’t be done by fiat: It requires the state to collaborate with local boards.
If LePage tried this tactic, he might find ways to ultimately help, rather than hurt, people in need of a job. But instead he responded by writing a letter to the federal government to say Maine would reject funding for the workforce boards entirely — likely $8 million per year. If finalized, the move would end the career counseling, job training and education, on-the-job training and work experience services that a couple thousand people across the state receive each year through their local career centers.
Maine’s job training system is underused, and there are several reasons why. The workforce boards are restricted in whom they can serve; their performance standards make it more difficult for them to help job seekers with many challenges; and the system is set up with lots of controls, which means it’s difficult for it to shift quickly. In addition, federal funding declined 38 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2016; the state provides no money to make up the difference.
If LePage wants to do something productive, he could tackle these challenges together with the people on the ground who are trying to make a complicated system work every day for people in need.