Amid a continued labor shortage in the state, a legislative panel on Wednesday voted to direct $22 million in federal COVID relief money to increase job training opportunities for out-of-work Montanans and to help people with disabilities find employment.
The recommendations from the commission, established by the Legislature earlier this year to administer workforce-related funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, still requires a final sign-off from Gov. Greg Gianforte.
The state’s Rapid Retraining Program would get $4 million over the next two years for existing workforce providers in the state. Workforce Services Division Administrator Scott Eychner told the commission this would apply to 24 workforce training providers in the state, including several programs under the Department of Health and Human Services.
The other $6 million would fund new training opportunities through the state university system and cover the costs of sending people to workforce trainings. Eychner cited a partnership between the University of Montana and an IT company as the model for finding niche training opportunities that could quickly train workers for specialized positions.
“It is not intended to recreate existing training program and providers that are already willing ready and able to step up,” he told the commission. “… Things like health care, IT, manufacturing are probably some of the ones that will get looked at.”
One Democratic lawmaker from Helena objected to that program during public comment, however, arguing that the $6 million recommendation defied the intent of legislators who had established guidelines for spending nearly $1 billion in federal relief funds.
“I think that funding misses the mark," Rep. Mary Caferro said. "I was hoping that the funding would go straight into current job training programs, including apprenticeship programs that the unions run and apprenticeship programs that already exist in the two-year colleges."
Democrats on the Republican-dominated commission tried unsuccessfully to move $3 million from the state’s return-to-work bonus program toward short-term retraining programs to build up the labor pool of workers who would be eligible for jobs funded through upcoming infrastructure projects, also to be funded by ARPA dollars.
The commission voted unanimously to recommend spending $2 million to hire 10 temporary counselors to work with people with disabilities to find employment. Chanda Hermanson, Disability Employment and Transitions Division Administrator, told the commission that about 1,300 people had applied to the program but are currently on the wait list, and the new staff would allow the division to address the backlog.
The panel also recommended $10 million to expand a grant program that compensates businesses for the costs of training workers. Qualified Montana businesses can get up to $3,000 per worker, with a per-business cap of $210,000. They are required to pay employees at least 170% of the state minimum wage to qualify.