Stimulus spending can renew skilled workforce

Managing Editor Lisa Towers looks at the potential of stimulus spending to renew our skilled workforce.

By Managing Editor Lisa Towers

In a gray, one-story building not far from Wrigley Field, a technical training center classroom fills up with students who are eager to learn about manufacturing. For many of them, their economic survival depends on their attendance.

These students are training in metalworking and to be computer numerical control (CNC) operators, and will spend 14 weeks as a part of the Jane Addams Resource Corporation’s (JARC, www.jane-addams.org) Manufacturing Skills Program.

Founded in 1985 as a not-for-profit community development organization, JARC’s staff recruits potential students from social services agencies in Chicago and prepares those who make the cut with valuable manufacturing skills. The organization also partners with local manufacturing facilities to improve incumbent workers’ skills.

We write a lot here at Plant Services about the critical skills deficit that has shorted industry of workers who can use computers and manufacturing technology to maintain the assets that keep plants humming. Now that a repressive gloom has been cast over the economy, the rules are changing. Regan Brewer, training services coordinator for JARC, says she is seeing more skilled workers who are being laid off or fear being laid off. Some come to JARC to obtain training and boost their skills in the hope of adding more value — and prove their worth — to their employers.

Even in good economic times, funding, or the lack of it, often is at the heart of why training doesn’t happen. Training partners like JARC obtain funding from government agency grants, private industry and by providing consulting services. In tough economic times, that means those providing the training are feeling the pinch, too.

Many are pinning their hopes on the funding that has been appropriated for federal, state and local agencies in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to jumpstart skilled workforce training. According to the Workforce Alliance (www.workforcealliance.org), the amount of funding dedicated to workforce training in this piece of legislation adds up to more than $12 billion.

Like many others in industry who see great need for skills training, Joel Leonard, Plant Services contributing editor and host of SkillTV.net, is hopeful about the training and workforce development funds that are being allocated to the states as a result of the stimulus. Eventually these funds will work their way through the system and into the budgets of training centers and community colleges. “Whether it’s self-funded or government-funded, [training] needs to be funded,” he says. “There’s a paradox that when companies have money for training, they don’t have time. And when they have time, they don’t have the money.”

The same can be said for those who are out of work in the hard-hit construction, automotive and related industries. These displaced workers have the determination to find new jobs, but often not the specific skills that high-tech manufacturing requires, nor the means to pay for tuition and other job-training expenses.

Though not a guarantee nor a panacea, the stimulus package has at least raised the public’s awareness about the importance of the manufacturing sector, and how valuable these jobs are to the economy. They’re worth putting our money where our collective mouths are, and now we can track where these stimulus package funds are going at www.recovery.gov, the government’s Web portal. But a better measure of our tax-dollar investment will be in the quality of our future workforce.

In her position as training services coordinator for JARC, Brewer is on the front line — both personally and professionally — of the kind of program that can help put people back to work. “I’m impressed with our students and the commitment they have had to the program,” she says. “They’re into this stuff and they catch on quickly. Sometimes they have reservations about their math skills or wonder if manufacturing is for them, but they quickly become engaged.”

Before she came to JARC, Brewer worked in a foreclosure prevention program and a residential treatment center. She knows, probably better than most of us, just how much of a toll the economy has taken on the average American. Now she works to support the organization’s mission to “provide high-quality skills training and support services to help lower-income and unemployed workers achieve self-sufficiency.”

You can get a better idea of just what kind of work this organization does by watching a video of Ray Prendergast, executive director of JARC, as he gives a briefing on Capitol Hill (www.jane-addams.org/TWA_video.html). This speech took place, ironically, a year to the date before the stimulus bill was passed. In it, he said that he is seeing jobs in the stamping industry coming back to the United States from China. “The issue is, if we have the skilled labor, we can automate these jobs and compete with anyone,” he says. “In fact, we have an edge. The question is, are we going to keep that edge. And for that we need a strong public policy that favors workforce development.”

With some perseverance, we might just get it.

E-mail Managing Editor Lisa Towers at ltowers@putman.net.

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