Sen. Vitelli workforce bill would take aim at skills gap

Posted: May 03, 2017 | Senator Vitelli

AUGUSTA — A bill by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, would expand and strengthen the successful Competitive Skills Scholarship Program, or CSSP, a program that helps low-income, underemployed and unemployed workers acquire new skills needed to obtain good-paying jobs in growing industries.

“For years, there has been a recurring chorus among business owners, economists, and experts in the field: our state is facing a skills gap. People in Maine are independent and hardworking, but find that their skills don’t match the demand for job openings in our state,” said Sen. Vitelli. “This proposal builds on a successful program that helps Mainers get good jobs, and helps small businesses find workers with the skills they need to succeed.”

The bill — LD 1467, “An Act to Expand Competitive Skills Scholarships and Strengthen Maine’s Workforce Development Programs” — received a public hearing before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee on Tuesday.

A recent series about Maine’s workforce woes, published by the Bangor Daily News, concluded that efforts to ramp up job training are key to improving the state’s economy. According to many of Maine’s top economists, the state will be faced with a shortage of more than 100,000 workers in two decades if significant action isn’t taken to change course.

John Dorrer, former Director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information for the Maine Department of Labor, spoke in favor of the bill at the public hearing.

“At a time of very low unemployment and tight labor markets, Maine employers are frustrated in attracting the workers and the skill sets they need,” said Dorrer. “These labor market dynamics will only accelerate in the years ahead. The inability to hire the workforce needed to grow and replace the Maine employment base will have serious, long-term consequences.”

The CSSP was created by the Maine Legislature with bipartisan support in 2007 to increase the skills and earnings of low-income workers while filling needed jobs in a changing economy. Applicants are required to seek education or training for a job in high-wage, in-demand occupation. They also must have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level — about $24,000 annually for an individual or $49,200 for a family of four.

According to the 2015 CSSP report, the program received nearly 1,100 applicants for only 400 available scholarships, showing that demand is far exceeding the level of support available for the program..

Sen. Vitelli’s bill doubles available scholarships and increases funding for the program by changing the employer contribution rate from 2 percent to 4 percent, and allocates $3 million annually to the CSSP. The bill also calls for greater outreach among businesses and training providers in order to reach individuals most in need of training; the unemployed, veterans and recipient of food assistance benefits.

Lastly, the bill broadens the education and training that can be offered through the program by taking into account direct employer input, changing demographics, and innovations being used by traditional industries — all of which are increasing demand for skilled workers.

CSSP recipient Helen Roy spoke about how the program improved her life. After her employer cut her position, she was accepted into the CSSP, allowing her to pursue a new career in paralegal studies.

“The Competitive Skills Scholarship Program helped me achieve my ultimate goal of a good-paying job, getting me away from being working poor. The CSSP helped me obtain my bachelor degree. It helped me turn my life around to where I wanted it to be,” said Roy.

The bill also received the support of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, State Director of the Maine Community College System Jim McGowan, Gilda Nardone of New Ventures Maine, and Carla Dickstein, Senior Vice President of Coastal Enterprises, Inc.

LD 1467 faces further action in the Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee and votes in the House and Senate.