Fred Webber: Workforce development key to Maine’s future

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To create and sustain a globally competitive workforce, Maine must put into practice the best strategies and align our resources to prepare local talent for the real demands of local and national employers. This challenge — commonly called workforce development — is the task of the State Workforce Investment Board, known as the SWIB, which I have had the honor of chairing the past two years.

During this period and by the direction of Gov. Paul LePage, we have taken a hard look at the existing system — its strengths, of which there are a few, and its weaknesses, which are too many. Some of these weaknesses were addressed in the 125th session of the Legislature, but the board, as a whole, has determined that structural changes are necessary to make the most of the federal dollars that largely fund this system. We have looked to other states to identify best practices, and we have listened to our education and training partners and our businesses to identify needs and opportunities.

A strong workforce development system improves the state’s business climate by designing and implementing strategies that help Mainers enter the workforce as well as advance their careers and grow business capacity through increased skills. The more highly skilled our workforce, the more we attract new businesses and diversify our economy.

Although much of the funding for workforce development comes from the federal government, the states, in cooperation with other key community partners, determine how to invest it.

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The restructuring of the system the SWIB is proposing to the U.S. Department of Labor, which much approve our plan, first increases business input. Workforce development must be employer driven. Without the input from businesses, the risk of misallocating our limited training resources is high. Program development must incorporate the most recent data on how new knowledge, skills or abilities might be applied and where the employment opportunities are geographically located. Industries are a key part of this public-private partnership.

To get this business input, the plan proposes gathering economic data based upon the already existing economic regions that are used by our chambers of commerce and the Department of Economic and Community Development. The regions are more closely aligned by economy and geography than are the existing local areas.

We will also create industry partnerships, a strategy proven effective in other states, including Pennsylvania. This will result in better tailored workforce development strategies that leverage local and industry resources.

This plan will improve not only the structure but, more importantly, the outcomes of our workforce development system. We have incorporated new policy goals, some of which have already been adopted, that will generate better management practices and ensure more accountability, meaning less waste in an overly bureaucratic system.

To that end, policy will focus on cost containment, savings and sharing as well as improving our ability to leverage federal funds. A minimum percentage of funding must be spent on worker training, something that was not required under the old system. Furthermore, we will mandate competitive procurement of administrative services and encourage joint use of these services across regions to lower overall costs and improve fiscal oversight.

Maine must be strategic in our use of resources. We are realigning programs and resources and incentivizing collaboration. We will require that programs and providers collaborate and co-invest their resources. Co-investment means that all participants have a stake in the outcome.

We will also require collaboration and resource-sharing across agency lines — assuring that all investments are aligned with state goals and that we create and support a continuum of skill development for Maine workers and Maine industry.

The SWIB will ensure that training dollars help grow Maine’s economy by focusing training efforts on “high quality employment” — jobs in industries with sustainable wages, benefits and future career paths. We will invest in training that increases our potential for significant expansion and attraction of outside investment. We must attract new businesses to Maine, so we will prioritize training that grows particular skill sets to bring in similar companies or foreign investment.

Since quality education is a critical part of workforce development, our educational partners at all levels have a seat on the State Workforce Investment Board. Through their participation, we can better utilize and support innovation at our university and community college systems. We will work collaboratively with educators, including our career and technical educators, to design and implement more effective training programs and to identify and recruit training candidates. These candidates include the unemployed, veterans, people with disabilities, people seeking to transition off public assistance and other groups.

This plan aligns workforce investment priorities across state agencies. The departments of Economic and Community Development, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services and Corrections can all play a strategic role in growing Maine’s economy.

Fred Webber of Standish was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage to chair the State Workforce Investment Board. He has led several national industrial trade associations and worked for the U.S. Department of Labor. He currently serves as the senior government counselor for Maine Street Solutions.

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