A pilot project just launched by the state of Michigan with Grand Rapids Community College is intended to provide employee training to a number of small manufacturing companies in West Michigan simultaneously, rather than one company at a time.
“We’ve never done it this way before,” said Julie Parks, director of training solutions at the GRCC Applied Technology Center. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. has chosen GRCC to administer a $200,000 grant that also will involve several other community colleges in West Michigan.
In order to encourage and support investments in Michigan manufacturing companies that will create or retain jobs, the MEDC sometimes will help pay for part of the cost of training related to a new investment. For example, if a company invests heavily in new technology that will enable it to expand, then specialized training is often required for any employee who is going to be working with that new machinery.
“Technology training is expensive,” said Parks, because it often requires experts who are in demand around the country. To be cost effective, classes require a minimum number of people in attendance.
That is not a problem for large companies, but it is for small companies. A large manufacturing company may have hundreds or even thousands of employees on a plant floor at one time and can spare a portion of them to send to specialized training.
For small companies, on the other hand, taking even a few employees off the floor may affect production, and two or three employees are not enough for a cost-effective training session. But with the new program — which is offered on a regional basis — GRCC and its partners hope to find a number of small companies that each will send a couple of its employees to a class.
“It’s not cost effective to have training for just four people. If we have 20 companies and they all send one employee, than it makes it more practical,” she said.
The other difference with the $200,000 regional training grant is that the MEDC normally manages the process itself, using its own staff to review applications for training grants. In the pilot project, the MEDC is still involved in the approval process but GRCC and the three other community colleges in the West Michigan region are doing the initial outreach.
The community colleges “are right in the communities,” said Parks. “We know those manufacturers — those are people we work with on a weekly basis. We feel that we are closer to it and we could help the state better through this new model.”
Parks said GRCC has provided training to more than 600 West Michigan companies over the past two years. Most of those companies are manufacturers, although it has included some service companies such as Meijer and Gordon Foods.
It currently is administering about 16 economic development grants that help cover part of the cost of training employees from 16 companies. Companies selected for the grants are generally required to match about 30 percent of the cost of the training they apply for, she said. Much of the training is done by GRCC staff, although the specialized high-tech machinery typically requires outside expertise.
Mary Hofstra, a senior program manager in the GRCC Training Solutions department, is working with the MEDC to select small companies that will qualify for training under the regional grant.
Two companies are signed up so far for participation but “we’ve got quite a few of them in the hopper right now,” said Hofstra. “The MEDC business development managers are helping us determine who are the appropriate fits for this.”
Hofstra guessed that in the first phase of the pilot project, there would be a minimum of eight to 12 employers involved.
Training that qualifies for a grant isn’t related only to high-tech equipment. It can include process instruction, such as lean manufacturing, if the company applying for the grant can make a strong case that the training will help it survive and retain jobs that offer good wages, according to Hofstra.
Parks said so far Muskegon Community College is on board with GRCC in the $200,000 regional grant. Lake Michigan College and Montcalm Community College are two other possibilities.
“We hope that they’ll help us find manufacturers in their area that would want to participate in this,” said Parks.
“We think this is really advantageous to the workers in our community.”