Training Grants Benefit 12 Firms

September 15, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — A state Economic Development Job Training grant of $390,650 is being used to upgrade the skills of 966 employees at a dozen companies in Grand Rapids, Byron Center, Buchanan, Caledonia and Rockford.

Of those undergoing training, 916 are existing employees and 50 are new hires. The 12 companies are participating in the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Manufacturing Competitiveness Program, which provides workers with the most current training in advanced automotive and manufacturing applications based on each company’s specific products and needs. A  Manufacturing Competitiveness Program grant is intended to streamline the training process by serving several companies through a single grant to make the most economical use of state funding, according to the MEDC.

The whole idea is to help Michigan companies maintain their workers’ skills “at cutting edge or beyond,” so they can better compete in a global economy, said MEDC President and CEO James Epolito.

“Overseas labor may be inexpensive, but our highly skilled work force remains the state’s ace in the hole when it comes to quality and availability,” Epolito remarked.

Participating companies in the grant are: ATEK Medical Manufacturing, Alexander Dodds Co., Burke E. Porter Machinery Co., Carter Products Co., Clipper Belt Lacer, Kent Design & Manufacturing, Ranir LLC and Terryberry Co., all of Grand Rapids; Bata Plastics Inc. of Byron Center; Byrne Electrical Specialists of Rockford; and Environmental Coatings Inc./Enviro-Powder Co. of Caledonia.

All 12 have begun training their employees, and for all of them the focus is on lean manufacturing, said Mary Hoffstra, a senior program manager with Grand Rapids Community College’s Training Solutions Group. About 90 percent of the training is being done at the employers’ sites. Hoffstra said that training could take as little as three months for some, and as long as three years for others.

The state authorized Grand Rapids Community College to write and administer the grants and to contract with various vendors for training. Colleges that write the grants get a 10 percent administration fee out of the total grant monies, Hoffstra said.

“We become the fiscal (agent) with the state and we get a 10 percent line item, and the balance of the grant goes toward employee training and material costs,” she said. “In many cases, GRCC is the training provider, but under this particular one we’re not. We do a lot of the generic training. A lot of training is equipment specific, so it makes more sense to send them to someone who already has that equipment and expertise so we don’t have to build it here.”

However, if it’s obvious that there’s going to be a lot of repeat work in a specific training area, GRCC might have one of its own trainers learn a new process so the college can provide companies with that kind of training in the future, she added.

All of the training is non-credit rather than tuition reimbursed, Hoffstra said, and grant monies cover the per-person cost of a class, plus any related materials it might require.

Depending on a company’s training needs and who has the expertise to address them, she might contract for training at New Horizons, Davenport University or GRCC, or through a partnership with The Right Place Inc.

Basically, the state awards Economic Development Job Training funds in two different ways, she said. Under the “business response” model, grants are awarded to companies that are moving here or are expanding in the state and plan to do a high volume of training. Those companies may get tax abatements as well as training dollars, Hoffstra explained. Under the program, 75 percent of the training has to be through a community college, she noted.

In the other instance, companies go after Economic Development Job Training dollars competitively in the form of a consortium grant, which means like companies with like processes and industry-specific training needs come together and share in the expense. That was the means by which the 12 West Michigan companies sought the grant monies, Hoffstra said.

Although training is done at each company’s site, they all come together in what’s called a “champion program,” where each company chooses one or two of its people to undergo “deep learning.” Hoffstra said that participants of the 10-month champion program become “lean champions” for their companies.

“They learn all the tools of lean manufacturing so that when they’re done, they can be the in-house expert at their own company,” she explained. “They all go to the same class so they can learn from one another.”   

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