JEFFERSON CITY — A workforce development grant program championed by Gov. Mike Parson was heavily criticized during a Senate hearing Tuesday.
A bill creating the Fast-Track Workforce Incentive Grant, sponsored by Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, proposes $22 million in grants which would go toward Missouri residents ages 25 and older to pursue training or higher education in “high-demand” jobs where there is an unfulfilled need for workers.
“We’re focusing on building our economy through building our business and industry, and for several years, some of these industries have come up short with the number of applications to fill these positions,” Romine said.
Zora Mulligan, Department of Higher Education commissioner, said the coordinating board hasn’t made the determination of which program areas will be included, but she noted two significant areas of “critical needs” are the health care and IT fields.
Sen. Bob Onder, R-St.Charles, expressed concern over the lack of concrete program areas and positions that would qualify for the grant.
“I represent 175,000 stakeholders called taxpayers, and they’d probably like to know whether this is going to train medical assistants or nurses, truck drivers or welders,” Onder said. “You come here telling me, ‘I’ll let you know what you’re funding in June.’”
In order to identify these program areas, the committee has started to look at the amount of demand the occupation currently has, vulnerability to automation and other technological advances and earning capabilities.
Onder questioned the fairness of that approach.
“So someone age 26 …decides they want to be a teacher,” Onder said. “They don’t get a free education; they have to take out student loans, but folks on this (recipient) list do get a free education.”
Mulligan said priority for grant recipients would be given based not on financial need or merit, but rather on the basis of which jobs and positions are identified as being the most needed by Missouri’s businesses.
Mulligan said June is the most realistic target to have finalized categories for the areas identified as “high-demand.”
Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, expressed concern over the financial burden the state would incur with the bill, suggesting the legislature look at cost-sharing programs with businesses where the specific positions are in demand.
“If we could find sponsors for the job that they’re training for that are willing to say, ‘Look, you receive this training, we’ll provide you this job at this salary,’ and have them help us with some of the cost of it,” Holsman said.
The grant, as proposed, would be uncapped, meaning it would allot recipients the actual amount of tuition for the recipient’s program “up to four semesters,” in order to include all programs that could be valuable to the state.
“Training programs are often fairly expensive, so those shorter training programs often exceed the cost of community college attendance,” Mulligan said.
Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, questioned whether taxpayers should be asked to shoulder the burden.
“The corporate world is always going to opt for state-paid anything, because that helps their bottom line,” Emery said. “One of the concerns is it seems like every time we have one of these issues where we’ve got a workforce issue or something else, the fallback is always the Missouri taxpayer. That concerns me somewhat.”
In his State of the State address, Parson also proposed $16 million for Missouri Excels, a program for Missouri Higher Education Institutions to “develop and expand employer-driven education, training programs, and initiatives to increase career readiness.”
Romine said the proposed Fast-Track grant would also encourage colleges and universities to create programs that address workforce shortage, although the grant would not directly fund any program creation. He said the grant would cover four semesters, with the assumption that students using the grant to attend four-year universities would have previously completed four semesters in a program.
Mulligan said the grant would apply to students wishing to attend MU, as well as any other public or private school in the state, as long as the program qualifies once industry designations are made.
“Students will be able to use this program to attend MU,” Mulligan said. “The programs haven’t been designated at this point, but I believe the vast majority will be existing programs.”