Few cash in on free training

Funding: Howard County's Office of Employment Training has $22 million to spend on training for high-technology jobs, but not many takers.

April 02, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Office of Employment and Training has a message for companies looking to train information technology workers -- "free money here" -- but few business leaders are listening.

The government office has access to two programs that together have $22 million available to train employees or to hire new ones trained in any information technology specialty the employer needs. But the office has gotten a lukewarm response from the business community.

"It's hard to give away funds," said Cheryl A. Queen, marketing coordinator for the office. "Some people have said they don't have a need right now."

In five months, she has met with representatives from 35 companies to tell them about the program. Seven have applied for funding.

The growth rate for high-technology industries in Maryland is estimated at 25.7 percent between 1996 and 2006, and the largest and best-performing sector will be information technology and services.

It accounts for nearly half of all high-technology employment and will grow at a rate of 35.7 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The agency predicts that about 36,000 jobs, or one of every 11 new positions in Maryland, will be generated by the high-technology sector.

Howard County has more than 300 information technology companies employing more than 7,000 people, according to estimates from the county Economic Development Authority.

The two funds, one for the Baltimore region and the other for the Washington area, were created by the Department of Labor to help businesses meet pressing needs. Technology companies can get all of the training paid for, but in accepting the money, the companies agree either to hire or promote the newly trained worker.

Although a slowing national economy has caused some businesses to reduce spending, which might include postponing training, promotions and hiring, that hasn't happened in Howard County, according to Richard W. Story, head of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. He said the problem might be perception.

"It is a government program," Story said. "The technology companies that are creating jobs are leery of strings, whether they're real or imagined."

The Greater Baltimore Technology Training Connection, part of the Baltimore office of Employment and Training, coordinates a $2.5 million, two-year renewable grant available for businesses in the region that need to train employees in information technology.

The group has given money to 10 companies, including three from Howard County, to train about 40 people, officials said.

"We've got lots of money to distribute," said Beth Line, project coordinator with the GBTTC. "We're looking to serve about 1,200 workers."

MetroTech, a program available only to Washington metropolitan-area businesses, offers $20.2 million to hire and train workers. It focuses on helping laid-off workers and those who want to enter the technology field. Companies that go after the funds must commit to hiring the new workers before the training begins.

After a year, the program has helped about 35 companies train about 300 workers. None of those has been from Howard County, but one county firm, Data Processing Solutions Inc., is expected to be approved for the program soon, Queen said.

"We're still looking at double-digit growth in the industry," said William L. Carlson, director of the MetroTech program. Layoffs are "not drying up the need for trained IT workers at all. The growth is way beyond the number of layoffs."

Executives at Microcosm Inc. know that all too well. The Columbia micro-imaging company was the first in the region to be awarded training funds that paid for one employee to take three courses. The company has returned to Queen's office for another round of funding.

"We're throwing down $50,000 to $70,000 a year to make sure that these folks are on the [cutting] edge," said the comptroller, Judy Gibbons. "When they said it was free money, we went for it."

Mark J. Blackburn, who started as an administrative assistant with Microcosm and is now part of the programming team, is using the training to turn his career from one in English literature, in which he has a master's degree, to computer science.

"I'm learning a ton through this," he said, adding that the courses are supplemented by the hands-on work he does every day. "I can reinforce [school] with something I'm really working on. It's a perfect coupling of work and school."

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