Putting employers in the driver's seat for job training

New Md. program, other efforts across the country ask businesses to work together to close gaps in job seekers' skills

  • Lamont Jones-Bey is one of four paid interns detailing cars for Vehicles for Change through the Academy for Automotive Careers. They completed a four week auto detailing course and recently graduated. The vehicles will go to low-income families.
Lamont Jones-Bey is one of four paid interns detailing cars… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
December 29, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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