LEWISTON — A week after announcing its big new workforce initiative and $150,000 matching grant, the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce offered more details this week about the Strengthen LA effort.

Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

President Shanna Cox said it may take until the end of 2020 to identify all of the partners involved, what strategies to use and how to measure success when it comes to trying to markedly grow the region’s workforce.

She’d like to hear from businesses about programs that have worked in-house to train and advance employees and specific needs local businesses have in finding employees.

News at last Thursday’s annual chamber dinner of the matching grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation “was an invitation to get involved and to scale up the efforts that are already here to further align what’s going on,” Cox said.

Nicole Witherbee, the foundation’s chief program officer, said the goal is to see those funds matched in 2020, “but that said, honestly, if it takes a little longer, we’re in it for the long term.”

“We have been at the table around workforce for a number of years at this point in the area and really want to see it expand in a big way,” Witherbee said. “This for us really is about the work happening with Growing Our Tree Streets. A lot of that housing in the Tree Streets neighborhood of Lewiston is going to be rebuilt, and as the residents and the city and its partners are thinking about how that happens, we’re going to need a lot more labor. Wouldn’t it be nice if that labor came from the neighborhood itself, or at least from the region?”

Witherbee said she anticipated the foundation trying to attract additional state and federal funds to the effort as well as giving Strengthen LA access to a consultant.

“She is under contract with several different foundations and different organizations to help them understand some of the more complex aspects of workforce development,” she said. “As partners in the L-A area are looking for help, she can come in and help them in a number of different (areas) depending upon their needs.”

To kick the match off, Cox announced her own $5,000 donation and an anonymous $5,000 donation last week.

As matching donations come in, they’re going into the Chip Morrison Legacy Fund. That fund was started in 2015 as Morrison, the longtime chamber president, was retiring, Cox said, and hadn’t yet been earmarked for any community projects. It already had about $60,000, which won’t be matched but will be added to the Strengthen LA effort.

“Our funds can be a little more flexible than some of the funding sources that pay for additional training programs, traditional gear,” Cox said. “There’s eligibility requirements attached to each of the federal, state and local funding streams. So if we find a 27-year-old disconnected from the workforce who can’t afford steel-toe boots and that’s the only thing keeping him or her from getting a credential of value and moving into a good-paying job, that’s something we can pay for, whereas a 26-year-old who needs steel-toe boots has two different funding sources that can help pay for it.”

How would that 27-year-old reach out for help? And what’s available?

Those are the types of details to be worked out, Cox said, as the chamber takes stock in who is offering what and how to boost the effort by working together.

“All of the different funding streams that support the different actors in the workforce development space, from secondary education to post-secondary education to job training programs to wrap-around supports like transportation and child care, all of those different funding sources can be aligned for this effort and leveraged against each other,” she said. “Everything that’s going on has been going on for a really long time and has done a pretty good job at getting some folks connected to work. It is not scaled up enough to have the scale of impact needed to really meet our workforce shortage.”

If, for example, an employer called tomorrow needing five welders, Cox said, they can become part of this new approach.

“They would become part of the design of the program, they would be an apprenticeship location, an internship location,” she said. “We would be working with them to make sure we have the right curriculum and right instructors on that advanced skill set that we would need.”

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