Citing lack of interest in workforce training grants, Republican state lawmakers and administration officials decided on Tuesday to shift $6 million in federal funding from that program to a program which would provide interest-free loans to businesses in Montana to automate manufacturing processes.
But Democratic lawmakers and union representatives opposed the proposal, arguing that limited applications for the workforce training program were due to an onerous application process, a lack of publicity for the grants and to a low ceiling on the amount of the subsidy per worker.
The money for the program is part of Montana’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal pandemic relief program signed into law last year by President Joe Biden.
Liane Taylor, a division administrator at the Department of Commerce, told the committee that while $1.2 million of the labor training grant program had gone to state-owned enterprises, only 128 $000 of those contracts had been fulfilled.
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With a labor shortage showing few signs of easing, Taylor said businesses must “become more productive and efficient with their current workforce.”
The jobs that would be automated “are the physically demanding jobs, the ones that are boring, have high turnover, and those are the jobs that also have the highest pay issues, workplace injuries, etc.,” Taylor said. .
Montana AFL-CIO political director Amanda Frickle opposed the proposal during public comments, saying the department could have done more to investigate why the workforce training program original did not attract more candidates.
“We are facing a labor shortage problem, this will not be solved just by equipment upgrades,” Frickle said. “And so we really have to understand as a state how are we going to solve this problem.”
The program would provide loans of up to $500,000 per business. Paddy Fleming is the director of the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, which would help the Department of Commerce administer the grant program.
“I think it’s more of a problem that there’s no one to train,” Fleming told the committee. “What can a manufacturer do, other than try to automate a job that no one is going to apply for anyway?”
Allocations of federal funds are overseen by several advisory committees made up of lawmakers from both parties and representatives from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration.
Frickle and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, one of two Democrats on the committee, suggested the committee take a closer look at why the training program hasn’t garnered more interest.
Members of the committee’s executive branch and Republican lawmakers instead voted in favor of the proposal, which passed without the support of Democrats. He still needs final approval from Gianforte.