Governor touts worker programs, new grants
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | August 01,2013
Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Vermont Labor Secretary Annie Noonan speaks at a news conference Wednesdayin Montpelier, discussing two federal grants to help unemployed people start new businesses and $1 million to enhance training programs.
MONTPELIER — A $1 million federal grant will keep alive a state program credited with reducing the amount of time it takes laid-off Vermonters to find work.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said Wednesday the so-called Re-employment and Eligibility Assessment program is among the initiatives he’ll use to combat an unemployment problem worsened recently by the layoff of more than 400 workers at IBM.
While Vermont still has the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation, jobless numbers here jumped by 10 percent during the last two months as tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a trend that runs counter to the mission statement of the state’s second-term Democratic governor.
“My top priority as governor is jobs and job creation, and expanding the income of Vermonters that have jobs,” Shumlin said Wednesday.
At a news conference at the offices of Cabot Creamery in Montpelier, Shumlin outlined a workforce development plan aimed at tailoring workers’ skills to the needs of Vermont employers.
In addition to the REA program, Shumlin highlighted a piece of recently signed legislation that calls for an inventory of the universe of job training programs.
Lawmakers who helped write the bill said the analysis will separate the wheat from the chaff and allow the state to redirect money toward more productive and relevant training programs.
Rep. Michelle Kupersmith, a Burlington Democrat and clerk of the House Committee on Economic Development, said decent-paying jobs exist. But out-of-work Vermonters, she said, are finding themselves without the skills needed to land them.
“Vermonters have said to us very clearly … ‘We hear about these jobs, but every time we apply, we’re told we don’t have the experience or skills to do it. We get shut out,’” Kupersmith said. “We’re realizing there’s a disconnect between what those opportunities are and what (job training programs) Vermonters are actually accessing.”
Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan said the REA program for which Vermont has won renewed funding is among her department’s success stories. Jobless Vermonters who participated in the program, which was introduced in 2012, spent on average 30 percent less time on unemployment than people who did not.
The grant has funded one REA staff member in each of the department’s 12 district offices around the state. Noonan said the program includes at least three counseling sessions for each newly unemployed Vermonter, sessions in which they’re given a customized plan of action for returning to work.
“That (REA staff person) actually spends time just understanding who you are as an unemployed Vermonter, what you like to do, what are your aspirations, and then works with you to place you to do job development, on-the-job training … to make a connection to a job that you can be successful in,” Noonan said.
The program served 4,458 people in 2012, according to the Labor Department, and is expected to reach an additional 10,000 in 2013.
Shumlin said he’s optimistic the inventory of workforce development programs will help solve a frustrating situation that has seen thousands of Vermonters remain without work even as companies near them advertise open positions.
“For the first time in the state’s history we’ve said, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of both private and public money that we spend to ensure we’re training workers to do the work that we have in Vermont, but how well are we doing that and how can we better coordinate that effort to ensure we’re spending the dollars on jobs and skills that we actually need?’” Shumlin said.
Noonan said the pending arrival of AnC Bio, a tech firm slated to begin operations in the Northeast Kingdom, lends urgency to the workforce development overhaul. The company will have 250 openings for employees with some expertise in “clean-room technology.”
“No one does that right now, and through this review, we’re going to be able to figure out who has money and who could put money toward training programs for clean-room technology,” Noonan said.
Shumlin also touted the receipt of a $50,000 federal grant designed to help the long-term unemployed start their own businesses. The program will match would-be entrepreneurs with mentors who can help them realize their business plans and connect them with the array of state and federal programs from which they could be eligible for financial assistance.