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Take advantage of this opportunity to build Montana's workforce

by MARY CAFERRO
| October 12, 2021 7:00 AM

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), our state has an opportunity to make unprecedented investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

We have a chance to catapult our state forward, but only if we have the workforce available to build that infrastructure. If there aren’t Montanans who are trained and ready to get to work on these projects, those good-paying jobs will go to out-of-staters.

But it doesn’t have to happen that way.

Montana’s trade unions already operate successful short-term, rapid retraining programs that help folks get the skills they need to shift into better jobs. After just a couple of weeks, or in some cases just a couple of days, workers can compete for jobs in construction, highway work, tunneling and more. This proven solution to our workforce shortage is ready to go, but more resources are needed to expand the number of spots in the training classes, and help instructors travel across the state to where workers are.

With the downturn the economy is experiencing in natural resource development, workers in communities like Colstrip and St. Regis are facing job losses. With training in new, high-demand skills, these folks could find new employment that lets them provide for their families. They might not be able to travel to Billings or Missoula to access typical workforce training programs. But with the rapid retraining programs we’re proposing, that training can come to them. It’s a common-sense solution to make sure that growth we make towards economic prosperity doesn’t leave our rural communities behind.

We have the funding necessary to push these training programs out across Montana —but right now, the state is leaving that money just sitting in the bank. Earlier this year, Governor Gianforte put $15 million in a “return to work” program that intended to give bonuses to Montanans who reentered the workforce after receiving unemployment insurance. “Return to work” isn’t working though, and over $14 million has gone unused. That program didn’t address the skills gap that’s forming a barrier between Montanans who need work and Montana businesses who need workers. We need to put that money to use in rapid retraining programs like the ones our trade unions are ready to expand. By doing this, we can make sure that in addition to making drastic improvements in our state’s infrastructure, the American Rescue Plan will also be a jobs bill for Montana.

The author is a Democratic state legislator from Helena and represents House District 81.