From workforce development to robots? ARPA money moves from training workers to automation

By: - October 22, 2022 9:57 am

Colstrip Power Plant (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Warren Smeltzer said he oversees the training of about 500 to 600 people a year. He received funding through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Workforce Training Grant funds, but last month lawmakers decided to reallocate that money to business automation.

Smeltzer is the Training Director at the Helena branch of the Laborers’ International Union of North America in Montana. He oversees the operation of the training center, sometimes an instructor, sometimes a toilet cleaner.

“I do a little of everything to operate the training,” Smeltzer told the Daily Montanan.

Last month, American Rescue Plan Act Workforce Training Grant funds totaling $6 million were reallocated by lawmakers on an ARPA advisory commission to business automation loans. The Department of Commerce said that the funds weren’t being utilized, with only $128,000 dispersed. Instead of funding workers and laborers, the funds will shift to ways businesses can automate or use machines to help boost production.

LIUNA Montana’s operation is funded through contributions from contractors, Smeltzer said, and the loss of federal funding will just cost them more.

“I think it’s unfortunate that after nine months, they are going to discontinue the program,” Smeltzer said. “Really, it’s hard to even get something started and then start making an impact and do that all in nine months.”

Workers from concrete pourers looking to switch career paths to Colstrip workers looking to train in a new industry won’t be getting funding for training that was allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Smeltzer said that it took a long time to decide whether it was worth it to apply for the funds, as there was a cap at $3,000 per eligible trainee. He said sometimes interviewing potential trainees can cost upwards of $1,000 if there’s need for travel. He said they had to submit a plan outlining how they were going to add to the capacity of the program.

Smeltzer said he wasn’t notified of the funding change and that he had originally understood the program to be recurring, with the state accepting applications annually.

He also said the skills taught through the program don’t translate to automation.

“We’re out there stripping asbestos,” he said. “You could use water sprays and stuff like that, but it still has to be bagged up, that’s going to be something that a person is going to be doing. It really takes away an opportunity for a person to either advance their skills or change occupations if they’re in an occupation that they’re no longer able to do.”

Smeltzer said that the majority of the trainees come to him for upgrade training, to renew their licenses or switch specializations as they age.

Liane Taylor of the Montana Department of Commerce said during the ARPA Economic Transformation and Stabilization and Workforce Development Advisory Commission meeting in September that businesses are struggling to find employees and people don’t want to work physically demanding manufacturing jobs.

“So this automation program, using ARPA funds, would assist Montana businesses who are seeking to automate or modernize their existing operations. The program is not designed to reduce the number of jobs but instead to retain jobs, and upskill existing manufacturing workforce by updating or replacing production equipment,” Taylor said in September.

Communications supervisor for the Department of Commerce Anastasia Burton said in an email Wednesday that the Business MT Division is working to have the automation loan application process available online by the end of the month.

“Businesses who have been in operation for at least three years and are interested in automating their processes would go to our Business MT Division website to get eligibility and application information,” Burton wrote. “We’ll announce the details in the coming weeks via a news release and on social media.”

Rep. Mary Caferro, D- Helena, said she was one of the negotiators on House Bill 632, which appropriated federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act in the state and provided the funds for the training grant program.

“I negotiated in good faith to get that $10 million into workforce training,” she told the Daily Montanan. “In good faith and a handshake, like we do in Montana.”

She said these millions were “squandered away” and called it a “slap in the face,” saying the bureaucracy in the process of applying for these funds had the impact of the state “hoarding” the funds, only to be spent on studying the economy.

“Then they sit back and go, ‘Hmm, nobody’s applying for the money,” she said. “How can we make government work for the public? How can we make government work for the private sector? Obviously, it’s a problem.”

She said the $3,000 grant cap was a product of the Gianforte administration as the commission solely produced recommendations.

“It was a clear intention of the legislature for this money to be invested in workers,” Caferro said. “And at every turn, the administration has failed to invest in Montanans with this money, and it seems to me that they refuse to make taxpayers’ money work for taxpayers.”

Caferro said one of the targets for these funds was the population in Colstrip, known for the coal mine and coal-fired power plant, retool their skills to prepare them for a new economy.

She said these funds could already be out in the community.

“Cybersecurity is very short term training and they make $50,000 a year and they can work from anywhere in Montana,” she said, as one example.

“You can’t automate pipe fitters. You can’t automate iron working, you can’t automate cement finishers. You can’t automate carpenters,” Caferro said. “How is automation going to help build Montana?”

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.