When work calls, training does the job New skills: As the state emphasizes high-technology and biotechnology jobs, training programs gain importance as an economic development tool.

March 23, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

AAI Corp. needed a dozen welders and needed them fast.

The Cockeysville manufacturer had to deliver the frames of 25 light rail cars by Sept. 2, and an ad in the newspaper had garnered only two qualified workers.

So AAI called state and local economic development officials and struck a deal. In what has become a common means of saving and adding jobs in Maryland, the economic development agencies devised a training program to teach workers the skills the company needed.

Last week, AAI got its welders, 11 Baltimore-area residents received new jobs paying $19,000 a year, and Baltimore County and the state received a boost in their income tax revenues.

"Economic developers in the past all spoke in terms of square footage," said Vernon Thompson, the state's assistant secretary for regional development. "Now a significant part of the equation 'Where can I get the people? What is the work ethic? What is the skill level? How can I get them trained?' "

Job training has been available for years, but it has become more important with the state's emphasis on fostering high technology and biotechnology business, economic developers said.

Hoping to expand its training offerings and to be more competitive with neighboring states, the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development is asking the General Assembly to more than double its industrial-training budget this year.

"In the near future, if not already, providing a qualified, trained work force will be the single most important incentive," said Paul Gilbert, head of economic development in Harford County.

Employee training packages were among the incentives used to encourage expansions or relocations by Bally's Health and Tennis Corp. and T. Rowe Price in Baltimore County; C. R. Daniels in Howard County; Marada Industries in Carroll County; Saks Fifth Avenue in Harford County; and TNT Logistics Corp. in Anne Arundel County.

Last year, using a combination of training and retraining money, the state spent $4.6 million to improve the skills of 10,000 workers at 75 companies that were selected based on the number and quality of the jobs they would create.

"There are so precious little resources available. We can't touch every business with this," Mr. Thompson said.

Sometimes, the training money is used to send workers overseas to learn a new technology or to allow a company to bring specialists into its plant to train employees. Often, community colleges assist the state's training efforts.

In the case of the AAI welders, Dundalk Community College helped form a training program at Baltimore County's Eastern Technical High School that was funded by $8,000 in federal money designated for training disadvantaged and laid-off workers.

The 11 applicants who responded to an ad for the program spent two weeks in Eastern Tech's welding shop before starting work at AAI. When they complete 90 days' probation, they will earn about $9.30 an hour.

The new welders most of whom had been unemployed or held low-wage jobs say the program has given them a skill and hopes of advancement with a major manufacturing company.

"I've been trying to get into AAI since I was 16," said Mindy Mohney, 29, who paid her own way in the training program because she made too much in her previous jobs as a computer operator and engraver to qualify for federal aid. She said she had worked mostly for mom-and-pop companies and wanted a workplace with greater opportunity for advancement.

Gregory Jones, 30, of Woodlawn, who was unemployed before starting work at AAI, said he hopes to work his way up in the company. "I'm looking for the long haul," he said.

Richard Story, head of economic development in Howard County, said the emphasis on employee training is not a reflection on Maryland's educational system but rather reflects companies' needs in an era of specialized and constantly changing technology.

"You always have a need to take employees trained in general skills and train them for a specific task," he said.

"It's an issue that's increasingly important," agreed Robert M. Hannon, Baltimore County's director of economic development. "The world is rapidly, rapidly changing. Technology and information are pervasive throughout business. The pace of change and the cumulative amount of change are expanding geometrically."

Hoping to offer employee training to more companies, the Department of and By comparison, Virginia is spending $7.7 million, Pennsylvania $6.7 million and West Virginia more than $4 million on such training programs.

Employee training packages are so common around the country that companies have come to expect them from the states and localities trying to woo them, said Andy Shapiro, manager of PHH Fantus Consulting, a New Jersey company that helps businesses decide where to locate.

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