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Republicans shift $6M from workforce training grants to biz automation loans

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The Montana Department of Commerce in Helena

The Montana Department of Commerce in Helena.

Citing sparse interest in workforce training grants, Republican state lawmakers and administration officials on Tuesday moved to shift $6 million in federal funding from that program to one that would provide interest-free loans to Montana businesses to automate manufacturing processes.

But Democratic legislators and labor representatives objected to the proposal, arguing that the limited applications for the workforce training program were due to an onerous application process, a lack of advertising for the grants and a low ceiling on the amount of grant money per worker.

The money for the program is part of Montana’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal pandemic relief program signed into law last year by President Joe Biden.

Liane Taylor, a division administrator with the Department of Commerce, told the committee that while $1.2 million from the workforce training grant program had been awarded to businesses in the state, only $128,000 of those contracts had been fulfilled.

With a workforce shortage showing little sign of abating, Taylor said businesses need “to become more productive and efficient with their current workforce.”

The jobs that would be automated “are physically demanding jobs, those that are dull, have high turnover, and those are the jobs that also have the highest work comp issues, workforce injuries, et cetera,” Taylor said.

Montana AFL-CIO Political Director Amanda Frickle objected to the proposal during public comment, arguing that the department could have done more to investigate why the original workforce training program didn’t attract more applicants.

“We are dealing with a workforce shortage issue, this is not going to be resolved simply by equipment upgrades,” Frickle said. “And so we really have to figure out as a state how are we going to solve this issue.”

The program would award loans of up to $500,000 per business. Paddy Fleming is the director of the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, which would help the Department of Commerce administer the grant program.

“I think it’s more of an issue that there are no people to train,” Fleming told the committee. “What’s a manufacturer to do, other than try to automate a job that no one will apply for anyway?”

Allocations of the federal funds are overseen by several advisory committees made up of lawmakers from both parties and representatives of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration.

Both Frickle and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, one of the two Democrats on the committee, suggested the committee instead take a closer look at why the training program failed to attract more interest.

The committee's executive branch members and Republicans lawmakers instead voted in favor of the proposal, which passed without Democratic support. It still needs final approval from Gianforte.

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