On Friday, Sept. 8, Joanna Russell’s cell phone rang while she was on vacation in New York. It was a courtesy call from the Maine Department of Labor that the state would no longer be participating in an approximately $9-million-per-year program that helps people get the skills they need for work that’s available in their area.
As the executive director of the board in Bangor that convenes all the different organizations and businesses necessary to make workforce development actually work in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock, Aroostook and Washington counties, the word that Russell kept returning to was “crisis.”
If Maine withdrew from the program, which is entirely funded with federal money, it would have an immediate effect. Unemployed people would have to stop their job training programs in the coming weeks, as money for tuition ran out. A couple thousand low-income adults, laid-off workers and struggling youth each year would no longer receive free, personalized help with learning a marketable skill. Education providers would lose funding and students. The infrastructure supporting the programs would collapse.
Rob Moreau, 33, is one of the hundreds of people currently receiving services who would lose them. He is attending college to become an X-ray technician after he was laid off from Home Depot. The workforce program pays for his tuition and child care for his 1-year-old daughter. If the funding goes away, he and his wife, Shelby, who works full time, will be left scrambling to find ways to pay for Moreau’s training, while also paying their many other bills.
“This is a crisis. It’s a crisis for our job seekers and businesses in the state right now,” Russell said soon after receiving the news that Gov. Paul LePage had alerted the federal government that Maine was willing to lose millions of dollars that flow through the Maine Department of Labor to three regional workforce development boards, which are led by local businesses.
It is also an unnecessary crisis. LePage has tried twice in his tenure to eliminate the regional boards in favor of one statewide board. When the federal government denied his most recent request — based on the reason that he didn’t have the local boards’ support — he responded with this scheme to simply not fund them.
LePage’s explanations about the whole matter have been confusing. Without releasing the letter LePage sent to the federal government, the Maine Department of Labor instead sent out a statement that LePage had not, in fact, rejected federal funding. Rather, he wants to remove overhead costs and “will work with the U.S. Department of Labor to identify the manner in which the federal government can continue to provide this job training funding to Maine with only one layer of administrative costs,” the statement reads.
How this will be possible after the U.S. Department of Labor twice denied LePage’s proposal to create one statewide board is anyone’s guess.
Many additional questions remain unanswered. It’s not clear what role the Legislature might be willing to play, or what recourse the regional boards might have, in averting the actual crisis. The federal government has so far declined to comment publicly.
But it is clear that, while there are undoubtedly ways to improve the workforce board system, eliminating it entirely would solve nothing, especially given its results. For fiscal year 2015, the regional boards met several federally approved goals, including one to get roughly 84 percent of adults with low incomes into employment in the first quarter after they finished their program.
It’s also clear that someone needs to intervene. A governor shouldn’t be allowed to tear up a job training system on a vindictive whim.