By Ilana Kowarski
You might not expect a CEO and a person without a job to agree on legislation, but there are exceptions. Marylanders Mark Rice and Paul Behler live in very different circumstances -- Rice is the owner of a Baltimore City manufacturing plant and Behler is one of the city’s unemployed. But both support a new state program signed into law Tuesday, HB227, that will fund the training of Maryland’s workforce.
Behler has been struggling to find work since 2011, when he lost his job as a piano technician after 30 years in the music business. Until a few days ago, Behler was homeless, and he spent over 18 months without housing.
His hope is that the EARN program will allow him to get a technical certification in plumbing or construction, which he sees as his ticket out of poverty.
The program, which begins this June, is intended to give workers an opportunity to gain new skills and credentials. It will provide $4.5 million of grants annually and will distribute that money to organizations deemed most effective at preparing people to work in high-demand occupations. Sponsors of the program say that it is a win-win scenario for business and labor, providing workers with state-of-the-art training and filling voids in companies that require rare skills.
Endorsed by Chamber of Commerce and Alliance for Poor
It is one of the few government programs that is endorsed by both the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland Alliance for the Poor.
This initiative was spearheaded by Gov. Martin O’Malley, who introduced the Employment Advancement Right Now (EARN) Act, the bill that created this workforce development program.
O’Malley championed the legislation in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, telling senators that there was a tragic disconnect between the skills that these Marylanders had and the high-tech training that employers wanted.
For Behler, these words hit home.
“I’m one of those fools with skills but no parchment on the wall,” Behler says. He describes himself as self-educated and highly skilled but complains that many employers won’t give him a chance, because he does not have a guild membership or a degree.
Rice wants to train people like Behler and turn them into the “super-technicians” that his engineering business needs.
Frustrated at lack of technical workers
As head of the Maritime Applied Physics Corporation, Rice has been frustrated by the scarcity of workers with the mathematical and computer knowledge necessary to manufacture military equipment. He says that 10% of his positions are unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants, but believes that the EARN program could provide the solution to this problem by subsidizing technical education.
The program particularly appeals to Rice because it is “industry driven,” he said. Rice is fond of the provision of the EARN Act which says that grants will be preferentially distributed to training programs based on what hiring managers say that they want.
“It lets government and industry work together,” Rice says.
Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, says that the EARN program’s collaboration with industry will ensure its success.
“You don’t want to be training people for jobs that don’t exist,” Perkins-Cohen says.
There are some critics of the EARN program. During floor debate in the House of Delegates, some Republicans voiced objections to the EARN Act, saying that the state already provided sufficient job training services. But the House bill ultimately passed overwhelmingly, 111-25. There was no opposition in the Senate, which approved the legislation in a unanimous vote.