On Aug. 29, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois stood side-by-side with Hank Eisenga, plant manager of Continental Tire North America Inc.´s passenger and truck tire plant in Mount Vernon, Ill.
The purpose of their joint appearance was to announce an $800,000 training grant for the Mount Vernon facility under Blagojevich´s "Opportunity Returns" economic development program. The money will pay for customized training for all 2,070 workers at the plant, in such areas as forklift operation, workplace safety and computer software.
"The intent of the Opportunity Returns program is to revitalize the state and help business wherever possible, and that´s how we were able to obtain a grant," Eisenga said. "We met and talked with representatives of the state about changes we needed to make to the facility to make it as competitive as possible."
Training grants available
The Opportunity Returns program, which operates through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, is one example of what´s available to U.S. tire and rubber makers, as well as manufacturers of every stripe, in the way of workplace training grants.
Every state, for example, in addition to its own workplace training grant initiatives, gets federal funds to implement programs under the federal Workplace Investment Act of 1998, designed to offer a comprehensive range of work force development activities on the state and local level to employers and workers alike.
WIA activities are centered through the Employment & Training Administration within the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency´s Web site—www.doleta.gov—has links to every state agency that administers a WIA program, including information on how to apply for a grant.
The ETA also has its own programs to help employers with worker training, including the High-Growth Job Training Initiative unveiled by President Bush on Labor Day 2003.
That program is a collaborative effort in 14 targeted industries—including automotive, transportation and retail—to develop a demand-driven work force system that also helps workers find good jobs at good wages, according to the ETA Web site. It relies on the joint efforts of employers, industry leaders, business associations, educators, trainers, local communities and the technical college system.
The ETA also maintains what it calls a "Business Solutions team" to help multistate employers connect with the publicly funded work force system. This system includes local Workforce Investment Boards, as well as state and local "One-Stop Career Centers" which offer recruiting and training services to help employers find and retain skilled workers.
In Illinois, the Opportunity Returns program includes but isn´t limited to funding work force training programs, according to spokesmen for the Illinois DCEO. The initiative provides an action plan for business development in each of 10 regions of the state, designed to develop the industries particular to each region and help them remain competitive against foreign manufacturers.
The agency also has a wide-ranging Employer Training Investment Program, totally separate from Opportunity Returns, whose stated goal is to help keep the skills of Illinois workers apace with new technologies and business practices, and in turn help Illinois businesses increase productivity.
The ETIP offers both single- and multicompany training projects to large companies (250 or more employees) and small companies (fewer than 250 employees). The Conti Mount Vernon plant has an ETIP initiative in place, long predating the Opportunity Returns grant, with nearby Rend Lake College. The state pays Rend Lake to provide both regular credit classes and plant-specific training and certification classes to Conti employees, while Conti guarantees Rend Lake a minimum of 12,000 contact hours annually.
Rend Lake has three classrooms dedicated to Conti, including two equipped with computer programs and two-way interactive video for Web-based training programs, according to Mark Kern, the college´s president. Rend Lake also has hired a full-time curriculum development expert specifically for Conti, he said.
"We´ve had a sporadic relationship with Conti for as long as the past 20 years, but this is a much bigger effort than we´ve had before," Kern said. "Conti is by far the largest employer in our college district, and we just can´t afford to lose them."
Conti has been successful in obtaining work force training grants for its workers not only in Illinois, but in North Carolina and Georgia as well. But employers who would apply for such grants need to study the specific programs in their states and understand what they entail, according to Richard Fierson, a consultant who helps Conti write work force training grant applications.
"In Georgia, grant money is not given directly to the company, but instead to training vendors to offset the cost of training programs," Fierson said. "In North Carolina, training grants are available only to companies that are either new or expanding. Conti´s Charlotte plant has been around since 1967, and it´s been laying off people lately, so it doesn´t qualify on either count. But the state did help us identify another source of training money through a private foundation."
Every state has at least one Web page dedicated to work force training and incentive grants and how to apply for them, said David Mallory, recently retired Conti director of human relations, usually on the site for the Department of Commerce, Economic Development or Labor.
Some states require training money to be channeled through the community and technical college system, he said. In North Carolina, funds are channeled through Central Piedmont Community College.
Conti-Rend Lake College cooperation
More often than not, this arrangement works out well; for example, Conti´s ongoing relationship with Rend Lake College is very good, Mallory said.
What might cause a state agency to reject a training grant application? Fierson said an application must meet at least two criteria: it must show how it will make both the company and the individual worker more economically viable.
"The training has to do something to improve individuals, so that if they´re laid off their skills will help them find new jobs more quickly," he said.
A spokesman for the Illinois DCEO said the Opportunity Returns program accepts about 90 percent of the appliations. The prime reason some are rejected is limited funds, though he said some applications may be incomplete or ask for funding for something the program doesn´t cover, like literacy training.