Warren Smeltzer said he oversees the training of 500 to 600 people a year. It was funded by workforce training grant funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), but lawmakers decided last month to reallocate those funds to automate the business.
Smeltzer is the Training Manager for the Helena chapter of the North American International Labor Confederation in Montana. He oversees the operation of the training center, sometimes a coach, sometimes a toilet cleaner.
“I do a little bit of everything to manage the training,” Smeltzer told Daily Montanan.
Last month, the workforce training grant money under the US bailout law amounted to $6 million Reallocation By lawmakers on the ARPA Advisory Committee on Business Automation Loans. The Commerce Department said the money was not used, with only $128,000 distributed. Instead of funding workers and workers, the money will go into ways companies can automate or use machines to help boost production.
Smeltzer said the LIUNA Montana operation is being funded by contributions from contractors, and losing federal funding would cost them more.
“I think it’s unfortunate that after nine months, they’re going to stop the program,” Smeltzer said. “It’s really hard to start with something and then start making an impact and do it all in nine months.”
Workers from concrete makers looking to change career paths to Colstrip workers looking to train in a new industry will not receive funding for training designated under the US bailout act.
It took a long time to decide whether it was worth applying for the funds, Smeltzer said, as there was a cap of $3,000 for each eligible intern. Sometimes interviewing potential trainees, he said, can cost upwards of $1,000 if travel is required. He said they had to present a plan outlining how they would add to the program’s capacity.
Smeltzer said he had not been notified of the funding change and that he had originally understood the program to be recurring, with the state accepting applications annually.
He also said that the skills taught through the program do not translate into automation.
“We’re outside removing asbestos,” he said. “You could use water sprays and things like that, but it still had to be filled, that would be something a person would do. It really takes a chance for a person to either develop their skills or change occupations if they are in an occupation that they can no longer do.”
Most of the trainees come to him to upgrade training, renew their licenses or switch majors as they get older, Smeltzer said.
Leanne Taylor of the Montana Department of Commerce said during ARPA’s Economic Transformation, Stability, and Workforce Development Advisory Committee meeting in September that companies are struggling to find employees and people don’t want to work in financially demanding manufacturing jobs.
“So this automation program, using ARPA funds, will help Montana companies seeking to automate or modernize their existing operations. The program is not designed to reduce the number of jobs but instead to retain jobs, upgrading the skills of an existing manufacturing workforce by upgrading or replacing equipment production,” Taylor said in September.
The Department of Commerce Communications Supervisor, Anastasia Burton, said in an email on Wednesday that the Business Machine Translation division is working on getting the loan application process automated. Available online by the end of the month.
“Companies that have been in the business for at least three years and are interested in automating their processes will go to the MT Business Division website for information about eligibility and application,” Burton wrote. “We will announce details in the coming weeks via a press release and on social media.”
Representative Marie Cafiero, D-Helena, said she was one of the negotiators for House Bill 632, which appropriated federal dollars from the state’s U.S. Bailout Act and provided the money for the training grant program.
“I negotiated in good faith for $10 million to train the workforce,” she told the Daily Montaigne. “In good faith and shaking hands, as we do in Montana.”
She said that these millions were “wasted” and called it a “slap in the face”, saying that the bureaucracy in the process of applying for these funds had an effect on the state’s “hoarding” of money, to be spent only on studying the economy.
She said, “Then they sit down and go, ‘Okay, nobody comes forward for the money.’ How do we make the government work for the public? How do we make the government work for the private sector? It’s obviously a problem.”
She said the grant cap of $3,000 was a product of Gianforte’s management as the committee only produced recommendations.
“It was a clear intent in the legislature to invest this money in workers,” Cafiero said. “And at every turn, the administration has failed to invest in the Montanans with this money, and it seems to me that they refuse to make the taxpayers’ money work for the taxpayers.”
One of the targets of the money, Cafiero said, was the residents of Colstrip, known for their coal mine and coal-fired power plant, and they retooled their skills to prepare them for a new economy.
This money could already be in the community, she said.
For example, she said, “Cybersecurity is a very short-term training, and they get paid $50,000 a year and can work from anywhere in Montana.”
“You can’t automate pipe fitters. You can’t automate ironwork, and you can’t automate cement finishes. You can’t automate carpenters,” Cafiero said. “How will automation help Montana build?”