Both the U.S. House and Senate have passed new job training legislation by wide margins, in a rare show of bipartisan-ship in Congress. President Obama has said he will sign the measure that re-authorizes the 1998 Workforce Investment Act. Maine officials are ready to implement the changes aimed at focusing the funds on jobs that are going unfilled.
Billions of dollars are allocated every year for job training programs by Congress, and that translates to millions of dollars in Maine. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins says the money is needed to address something she hears a lot about from employers across the state: a lack of skilled employees for jobs that are currently available.
"There are jobs available and employers cannot find the workers with the education and skills for those jobs," Collins says. "Nationwide there are four million job vacancies."
One state study estimates that there are at least 4,000 such vacancies in Maine. Collins says the bill got strong bipartisan support because the nation is still recovering from the recession, and too many Americans are out of work. She says the legislation will allow employers to focus the use of the job-training dollars where vacancies are going unfilled.
"We need to get employers more involved with our community colleges, with our university system, to make sure that we can make sure we can correct this mismatch between the jobs that are available and the skills that workers have," she says.
Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette is pleased Congress has passed the measure, and says the state is ready to implement the legislation quickly. She says Maine has already reduced its administrative costs by reducing the size of the workforce investment boards, so that more dollars will go for training.
"Businesses have to be the drivers of this," Paquette says. "They need to be the ones that are at the table telling us what the skills are, and then we need our education partners, we need the public and private sector partnerships and it needs to be something that is bipartisan."
Paquette says the federal government recognized Maine’s efforts to better focus job training programs last week by giving it a grant of nearly $900,000 for additional training efforts. She says it and all training funds in Maine are reviewed to make sure they are meeting the goals set by job categories.
"We are one of eight states that were awarded that incentive money because we have already started to implement performance based, you know, tracking," Paquette says, "so that we can make sure that people are held accountable for those funds that are being used."
Peter Gore, vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, says the legislation is important because it reduces the size of the workforce boards and assures a majority of the board are employers. He says employers have been clear that they have some vacancies because they can’t find workers with the skills needed for those jobs.
"It’s not only we have job openings we can’t fill, it’s we anticipate job openings due to people aging out of the workforce, retiring," Gore says. "They are taking with them a massive amount of skills and institutional knowledge of our business."
Gore says the job programs need to be aimed at retraining older workers, as well as helping young Mainers just entering the workforce. He says the strong bipartisan support for the measure is refreshing after the partisan gridlock that is underway on so many other issues in Washington.