The General Assembly has approved the governor's plan to distribute $2.5 million in state grants each year to train workers for high-demand industries.

The House of Delegates voted 115-23 Tuesday to approve the program, the first piece of Gov. Martin O'Malley's 2013 legislative agenda to be sent to him for his signature.

The Employment Advancement Right Now program, called EARN, passed the Senate unanimously last month.

"Though Maryland has built up one of the most highly skilled workforces in the nation, too many of our workers lack the skills they need to compete for the jobs in highest demand," O'Malley said in a statement. "The EARN initiative will help us bridge that skills gap."

Under the program, grants will be distributed through partnerships among workforce centers, community colleges, employers and others in targeted industries that have a high demand for skilled workers. The partnerships are to design training programs, which the grants will help finance.

O'Malley's staff said two state agencies would further develop the grant program, but the intent is to focus on construction, traditional and advanced manufacturing, and cyber and health care industries.

Mark Rice, owner of Maritime Applied Physics Corp. in Baltimore, said he has struggled to find workers that are well-versed in both manufacturing and the electronics used in the marine systems his company builds.

"We are in a continuous struggle for finding technicians," Rice said Tuesday. "Generally the workforce who knows those skills are my age — 60 years old — and are leaving the workforce. We've let our manufacturing skills atrophy as all of our jobs move overseas.

"We're always looking for these types of workers, but we're usually having to do a national search. We'd like to hire people from Baltimore," Rice said.

The legislation calls for a new website called "Train Maryland" to connect job-seekers with the training programs.

During O'Malley's testimony on the bill, the governor said Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington have similar programs that help train local workers for industries.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce supported the bill, which was co-sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, among other legislators.

Maureen O'Connor, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said the industry-driven program will rely in part on an existing state database of job seekers and employers to help determine the skills gap. That data, she said, will help decide which grant applications will be approved.

"It's database targeting, using our information to figure out what really is the need," O'Connor said.

In addition to the EARN initiative, O'Malley has also proposed new or expanded tax credits for the biotechnology, cyber security and film industries.

ecox@baltsun.com