Putting employers in the driver's seat for job training

Even as the manufacturing industry sheds jobs overall, a number of firms in Maryland want to hire — and aren't having an easy time of it.

That's what the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership heard when the nonprofit talked to 40 employers this year. Most of the entry-level people the firms bring on don't work out, in part because it can be a culture shock to take a job in manufacturing for the first time, said Brian Sweeney, executive director of the manufacturing-assistance organization.


A new state program aims to fill such gaps with training designed and launched by employers. Twenty-nine groups in a variety of business sectors will get funding to analyze their needs and plan training next year, including the "boot camp" prep course envisioned by manufacturers, the state plans to announce Monday.

The Employment Advancement Right Now program, called EARN, is part of a national movement to get employers more deeply involved in efforts to develop a skilled workforce — a shift that has gathered steam in recent years as federal funding for training has shrunk.


Elisabeth A. Sachs, director of the EARN program for the state Labor Department, describes the benefits of the approach.

"Instead of … 'train and pray' — you sort of throw the money out there, hope people get a credential and then find a job — we're starting with strategically getting employers in an industry to the table and saying, 'What skill sets are missing, what curriculum changes, what on-the-job training, what expert teachers do you need to bring in … to get the skilled worker at the end of the investment?' "

The nation's major training programs in the 1970s, '80s and most of the '90s took a worker-centric approach.

"Very little was focused on understanding what employers needed," said Fred Dedrick, executive director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which aims to get industry more involved in training.

The 15-year-old Workforce Investment Act system requires states to appoint oversight boards made up mostly of employers. But Dedrick said that usually produces general ideas about needs — which he said is "not enough to build a program around."

Enter the industry partnerships, in which employers and industry groups in the same sector come up with specific plans for getting more trained job candidates. A growing number of states are encouraging and funding them.

"It's a real shift in the way we're doing occupational training in communities all over the country," said Rachel Gragg, federal policy director with the National Skills Coalition, which advocates for increased access to training.

Some Maryland employers organized years ago. The Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, for instance, was launched in 2005 with funding from local foundations to work on creating a bigger pipeline of trained entry-level workers.


In other cases, groups that help low-income people teamed with employers to make training more effective. Halethorpe-based Vehicles for Change, working with like-minded nonprofits including the Center for Urban Families and Catholic Charities of Baltimore, launched an auto detailing training program this fall with assistance from a local detailing firm.

Cockeysville-based Diamond Detail helped with the curriculum, donated equipment, trained the trainer and offered suggestions about how to organize the work area.

"Since they helped us set the program up, we're giving them first crack at our recently trained detailers," said Philip C. Holmes, director of the new Academy for Automotive Careers at Vehicles for Change.

Chuck Heinle, Diamond Detail's president, said he's hired three graduates already. The 190-employee company is growing fast and needs a pipeline of new employees. Heinle likes getting them already trained and with a reference from Vehicles for Change. The organization can monitor work habits, because students who finish the four-week training program temporarily stay on as paid apprentices.

Vehicles for Change is working to get other employers involved in the program — if only to come in and watch participants clean, polish and repair scratches in cars donated for low-income families.

"Our key strategy is to get the company to visit and see the quality of the work our students can do, and then our theory is, if they can see the demonstrated skills, the company may overlook some of the issues that our students are dealing with," Holmes said.


Homelessness, for instance. Four of the program's five apprentices are living in shelter arrangements such as transitional housing.

Tyrone Carter, one of the apprentices, lives at Christopher Place Employment Academy in Baltimore, a residential program run by Catholic Charities. As he cleaned a slightly dented Nissan last week, first with water and then with clay to pull out stubborn dirt and dust, Carter said he has two jobs now — detailer during the week and security guard in a homeless shelter on weekends.

Detailing keeps the 55-year-old man on his feet, always moving. But he talks about it with a smile. Fellow apprentice Steve Fowler, 36, is just as enthusiastic.

"It's a beautiful thing to have this understanding and this knowledge under my belt, because I can take it anywhere," said Fowler, who lives in a Christopher Place home in Baltimore.

Vehicles for Change hopes to start auto mechanic training next. It didn't get one of the state's EARN planning grants — labor officials received 68 applications, nearly double the number they'd expected — but the nonprofit intends to try again in the spring, when the state is to give grants to launch training programs.

The planning grants — an average of $22,000 apiece — went to industry partnerships in a range of fields, including health care, cybersecurity and construction.


Scott R. Jensen, the state's deputy labor secretary, sees training as important for economic growth. Companies can't fill empty jobs if they can't find the right workers, he said.

"Helping workers and helping businesses in many instances is not mutually exclusive," Jensen said.

State officials crisscrossed Maryland this year to talk up the $4.5 million EARN program and explain how it works. That could explain the higher-than-expected number of applicants — that, and a rush for assistance in an era when federal training dollars are shrinking nationwide.

Maryland's $55 million in workforce development money last fiscal year, largely for helping unemployed workers but also for adult basic education, held steady from the year before only because the state plugged a cut in federal funding that came with sequestration.

Meanwhile, funding is down 26 percent since 2003, accounting for inflation — and demand is up. About 74,000 more Marylanders are unemployed now than a decade ago.

Closing the "skills gap" — the chasm between people who need a job and employers who need very specific workers — wouldn't be enough to get the unemployment rate back to normal here or nationwide. But advocates for training believe it's part of the solution.


"We hear from employers every day: 'I have job openings, I can't find people with the right skills so they're not getting filled,'" said Gragg, with the National Skills Coalition.

Maryland manufacturers with that problem are working with the manufacturing extension partnership on plans for a boot-camp introduction to the field for entry level workers. Among the partners is Tenax Corp., the Baltimore-based arm of an Italian company that makes fencing and other containment systems.

Steve Petrides, the company's president, said it took most of the year to fill 10 new positions associated with an expansion at the Baltimore plant. Once a worker makes it past six months, he said, they're likely to stay — "but within that first six months, we have a huge amount of turnover."

"It's expensive … and ultimately less productive," Petrides said.

What he and other manufacturers want a prep course to cover is partly basic skills — equipment safety, for instance — and partly expectations. The shift might start at 6 a.m., and "they've got to be there at 5:50 ready to rock and roll," said Sweeney, with the manufacturing extension partnership.

The course would include an element of salesmanship, too — discussing benefits, career advancement and other reasons why workers should jump into manufacturing, despite the hard work and the headlines about factory closures.


Petrides is hopeful about the proposed training. He's glad the state's EARN program is aimed at helping employers design something they think will work.

"I've seen a lot of these programs where they start with the solution in mind, and it never really fits the problem," he said.