Montana Panel Backs $22 Million Investment In Job Training

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A commission discussing how to spend federal COVID-19 relief dollars is recommending Montana's governor approve $22 million for job training and retraining programs to increase the workforce as businesses struggle to find enough employees.

The Department of Labor and Industry proposed $10 million for rapid job retraining and $2 million to clear up a backlog of job training for people with disabilities. The Department of Commerce recommended spending $10 million for training grants to businesses. The Economic Transformation, Stabilization and Workforce Development Advisory Commission unanimously approved all the recommendations Wednesday.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has final say on the spending.

The labor department recommended spending $4 million over the next two years through existing job training programs as well as workforce and education programs for people receiving public assistance.

An additional $6 million would be used to create up to 10 short-term training programs, like one in Missoula where potential employees at a technology consulting company go through a 12-week course at the University of Montana.

The project will identify and create programs at universities to train workers for in-demand jobs that pay $50,000 a year or could lead to jobs that pay that much, officials said. The types of jobs are still to be determined.

The money would be used to develop a curriculum, cover the cost of training and subsidize a wage for those doing on-the-job training, said Scott Eychner, administrator of the Workforce Services Division within the Department of Labor and Industry.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce plans to partner in the effort by surveying businesses about what kind of skilled employees they would need to grow their businesses.

State, education and business interests said they believed the programs would continue even after the federal funding ends.

Separately, the labor department said it has $1.75 million in federal funds this fiscal year to help retrain dislocated workers, including about 100 people whose jobs will end when a sawmill in St. Regis closes this fall.

The labor department proposed spending an additional $2 million in relief funds on job training for people with disabilities, saying there are 1,300 people awaiting assistance through vocational rehabilitation programs. The funding would allow the state to hire 10 temporary staffers for two years to help work through the backlog and increase the number of available workers.

The Department of Commerce requested $10 million be spent on matching grants to help businesses pay to train new and existing full-time workers for jobs that would pay at least $14.88 an hour.

Additional incentives would be provided for businesses that train employees in high-demand sectors for jobs that pay $24 an hour or more, said Wayne Johnston, chief of the agency's Business Assistance Bureau.

Union groups urged the commission to ensure some of the money is used to train workers to complete infrastructure projects — such as broadband, road and sewer work — funded by other federal relief money.

In other business, Eychner told the commission that the demand for the state's return-to-work bonuses was not as high as expected. The state has paid out nearly $930,000 to 774 people, with 3,600 more applications pending.

Eychner told the commission that it's clear the agency won't be paying out all of the $15 million set aside for the $1,200 bonuses, which could have provided return-to-work incentives for up to 12,500 workers.

The program offers the bonuses for people who were receiving unemployment as of May 1, returned to work between May 4 and Oct. 31 and worked at least four weeks for a single employer. Gianforte announced the incentives as Montana stopped paying an extra $300 weekly unemployment benefit.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for information on what he might suggest doing with the leftover money.