Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has sent two proposed budget plans to state lawmakers this year that maintain or expand funding for skilled trades training as well as introduce new talent development programs.
The most significant item in Whitmer’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget proposes $120 million for the Michigan Reconnect program that covers tuition for certification or associate degrees in in-demand industries for people age 25 or older.
Smaller proposals seek $3 million for a construction apprenticeship program and $1 million for the Focus: HOPE program aimed at youth and workforce development.
Since launching on Feb. 2, the Reconnect program received more than 40,000 applications from Michigan residents looking for an associate degree or skills certificate from their local community college, the state reported last month.
Officials say the program targets both the growing talent gap and the state’s aging workforce, which employers recently reported as a top concern in a fall 2019 Michigan Future Business Index Report commissioned semi-annually by the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America and the Michigan Business Network. Of 480 employers surveyed, more than half reported having “difficulty finding qualified candidates with the right skills and talent to fill full time positions.”
Another key workforce development component of Whitmer’s proposed budget includes a $15 million increase for the Going Pro Talent Fund, bringing the planned investment for the next fiscal year to more than $43 million.
Going Pro awards grants to businesses in a variety of sectors, helping to bring on new employees as well as helping existing employees gain certifications and apprenticeships. In late January, state officials announced $39 million in grants for 850 businesses that will eventually help train 30,000 workers.
Although the program that’s been in place since 2013 has traditionally been heavily concentrated in manufacturing, officials are seeing growing interest from the medical and construction fields, said Angie Barksdale, chief operating officer of West Michigan Works!, which helps distribute state funds to local employers.
Going Pro also is coming off a gap year as funding was redirected at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was our most successful year in terms of awards and applications submitted even in the midst of COVID,” Barksdale said. “In our area, we’ve seen a significant increase in health care employers applying, as well as construction. It’s really diversifying.”
Byron Center-based Buist Electric Inc. is among the construction industry companies that have received Going Pro funding in recent years. Human Resources Manager Kim Kohlhoff said Buist Electric has received more than $400,000 in grants in the four years it was selected, training roughly 175 new and existing employees in that time. It was awarded $99,745 for 2021.
The funding covers the cost of books and tuition for apprenticeship school, Kohlhoff said.
“We have noticed additional training in automation and testing specifically,” she said. “We’ve also recently diversified our audio and visual services.”
“As older trades people age out and retire, there’s going to be an ongoing need to replace them,” Kohlhoff added. “That’s a growing reality at Buist and across the industry.”
Kentwood-based contract manufacturer Autocam Medical Devices LLC has used Going Pro training funding as part of broader efforts to build a pipeline for high school students, said Human Resources Manager Kristy White. Autocam received $99,000 in this year’s funding round as it plans to add 50 machinists within the company this year.
“Skilled trades are obviously lacking workers,” White said. “Trying to get students to choose machining out of high school has probably been my biggest bottleneck. The biggest challenge is parents who think students should go to college.”
Separate from the upcoming fiscal year budget proposal, Whitmer in January sent lawmakers a $5.6 billion COVID-19 relief spending plan — mostly an influx of federal pandemic relief funding — that includes $5 million for clean energy job training and $6 million for “wraparound” services associated with participants in Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners, another tuition assistance program for people seeking four-year degrees.
Clean energy groups praised the $5 million pre-apprenticeship program to train unemployed or under-employed residents in the energy sector. The program comes as the clean energy sector has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs across the U.S. during the pandemic, including 31,000 in Michigan by June 2020, according to clean energy groups’ analysis of federal labor statistics.
Michigan Environmental Council President and CEO Conan Smith said in January that the energy training program is “just what we need during a pandemic that has left many people unemployed, many other underemployed and an economy struggling.”