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Lawmakers on an advisory commission voted this week to reallocate $6 million in workforce training funds to an automation loan program for businesses in the state, with several members of the public in opposition.
Liane Taylor of the Department of Commerce said that training funds had not been utilized, with nearly $1.2 million awarded to businesses but only $128,000 dispersed. Taylor said businesses are struggling to find employees and people don’t want to work physically demanding manufacturing jobs.
However, Amanda Frickle, Montana’s union federation AFL-CIO Political Director, said that the application process for the training funds was “onerous,” with a grants cap that was “too restrictive” to onboard the necessary number of apprentices, as reasons why the department didn’t see more applications. She said the state is dealing with a workforce shortage issue that won’t be fixed with equipment upgrades.
“It is disappointing that we haven’t really dug into how we could have made that program work and instead are talking about diverting funds,” she said.
The automation program would use federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to assist Montana businesses seeking to automate or modernize their existing operations, according to Taylor. Lawmakers on the ARPA Economic Transformation and Stabilization and Workforce Development Advisory Commission took up the topic Tuesday.
“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.
Frickle said in her comments that she could see investments in both training programs as well as equipment upgrades.
Quinton Queer said he operates a training center for plumbers and pipefitters in Butte and that it was very difficult for existing programs to access funds. He said he consistently has a list of 20 to 30 applicants.
“There’s people out there ready to go to work,” Queer said. “They’re not willing to work in lower paid jobs.”
The Department of Labor and Industry certified over 700 apprenticeships in 2022, far surpassing totals in recent years.
House Minority Leader and commission member Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said that she would be opposing the reallocation of funds. She said she supported looking back at the barriers to accessing the training funds.
“Without safeguards to make sure that we’re not displacing workers and without looking at some of the barriers to the initial program, I’m going to be a no on it,” Abbott said.
Republicans on the advisory commission voted in favor of the proposal, which will need final approval from Gov. Greg Gianforte.
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