More Perks and New Name for Popular State Training Fund

A popular state program that’s brought millions in worker training dollars to the Grand Traverse region is getting some business-friendly tweaks.

The changes – and a new name – are coming to the Michigan Skilled Trades Training Fund, an initiative that wins praise in many corners.

“This is one of the rare state programs out there where we just hear nothing but rave reviews from the businesses that use it. Not only in where it helps fill their training gaps and their talent gaps, but in the overall general ease of being able to use the program, relative simplicity of applying and being able to use the grants,” said Kent Wood, director of government relations for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Renamed the Going Pro Talent Program, employers will now be able to use grants from the program for leadership and management training, expanding on the allowable uses of state dollars. Employers will also have more flexibility as to when they schedule and complete all types of training.

In addition, there are new incentives for hiring and training older workers and parolees.

Public Act 260, signed into law in June and sponsored by Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, enacts the new name and adds leadership and management training to the bucket of activities – which have included talent enhancement, increasing worker productivity, development of workforce skills and worker retention – that can be funded by the competitive grant awards.

It’s a good addition to the state program, said Betsy Williams, business development and training specialist with Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) Training Services.

“As companies grow … how do you have that emerging manager and supervisor get the skills that they need?” she said. “It is an area for professional development that has been very needed.”

State officials say the training can help with employee retention and positions companies to be successful.

Employers will need to submit curriculum for the leadership and management training with their grant application, and the state will be looking for employers to demonstrate how the training will positively impact their business, said Stephanie Beckhorn, director of the Michigan Workforce Development Agency.

Another new twist: Employers will no longer need to complete worker training by the end of the state’s fiscal year. Under past practice, once grants were awarded in late fall, employers had until the following Sept. 30 to do training. But if that time frame became unworkable for any number of reasons, like production cycles or training schedules and availability, employers ended up walking away from part or all of their award.

“The employer had to ensure that the training would fit into a fairly small window. And that’s not always possible,” said Terry Vandercook, director of Northwest Michigan Works!, the workforce development agency that is local employers’ conduit for the program.

Now, employers will have one year from the date of the award to conclude training. That will give employers “more flexibility to get folks trained and also open up the availability of trainers to service more employers,” Vandercook said.

Horn’s bill also puts the program into state law, a move seen as providing it more permanency.
The program awarded nearly $29.7 million last year and funding is at the same level for the upcoming 2019 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Demand for money continues to outstrip supply: Some 943 employers last year submitted applications totaling more than $37.5 million in requests, compared with $29.6 million awarded in November to 798 employers.

In the 10-county northwest Michigan region, individual and groups of employers in the 2018 cycle have won $1.4 million in grants. But there’s a desire to bring home more.

The chamber, NMC Training Services, the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council and Northwest Michigan Works! are among the organizations working to build awareness and participation in the program.

“Seeing the impact that the training does have on the companies … you just want to tell everybody about that,” said Matt Schwarze, business development specialist with NMC Training Services and secretary for the manufacturing council.

He said “anybody who is anticipating growth should be a part” of the program.

NMC’s Williams and Schwarze work with companies to understand their training needs, desired impacts and results, scheduling, and how all can fit into the state program’s parameters. They join with Michigan Works! officials to help companies to submit strong grant applications.

They and others will be participating in a Sept. 6 meeting for employers, organized by Northwest Michigan Works!, that will provide a program overview. The Traverse City meeting is among several that Northwest Michigan Works! is holding around the region; information will be available on the agency’s website,

“We encourage employers, both that have participated in the grant before, as well as those that haven’t participated … [to attend and] learn about what the program is, this is how you apply, this is what can make you competitive,” Vandercook said.

And for employers, being competitive includes offering up some training investment of their own to accompany the state dollars. In the most recent cycle, the $1.4 million in state grants leveraged $14.9 million from employers, which could be for such items as the employer’s portion of the training, wages during training, donated space and resources, or other costs.

Northwest Michigan Works! helps employers connect with and utilize the program, assisting in areas including the application process, reporting and providing reimbursement when training is completed.
Employers have limited time to seek grants. The Workforce Development Agency hopes to release applications to Michigan Works! agencies around mid-September. Employers will need to apply by the end of that month or beginning of October, Beckhorn said. A precise date had not been set as of deadline for this story; the state hopes to award grants by the end of November.

The new program year also brings a new incentive to hire and train certain workers. The state last year offered a $500 incentive for an employer to hire a veteran or active reservist and that’s being expanded to hiring individuals age 55 and older, and parolees. The money is in addition to grant awards and to be used toward additional employer training-related costs.

Across the local employer community, in diverse sectors, the awards have been making a difference.
Interlochen Center for the Arts last year was awarded a $6,195 grant for five information technology staff to go through various trainings, including in Cisco technologies.

Dave Bondurant, assistant director of information technology, said he didn’t know at first if the institution would fit into the program’s boundaries, but applied after going to an informational Northwest Michigan Works! meeting. He said the training he received added a layer of technical expertise to operations and for others on staff, the training “makes them more valuable, knowledgeable … in being able to resolve issues and push forward projects faster.”

Also seeing benefits is Pro Image Design Inc., whose design services include signage, corporate apparel, business logos and marketing and promotional products.

Alan Hubbard, founder and partner, said a $9,175 grant the company received in 2016 and another $15,285 grant awarded last year helped the 16-employee company scrutinize its operations. A first step was an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Subsequent activities included employing lean manufacturing principles and tools tailored to Pro Image Design’s business model, helping to identify and reduce waste in business processes in Petoskey and Traverse City locations and improving work flow.
The training and programs implemented as a result of the state assistance have aligned the company’s team and helped foster ownership thinking and initiative, Hubbard said.

“It’s allowed us to be more efficient and more effective, by creating the systems and processes to effectively manage our growth,” he said.

Improving company operations, including business flow and employee satisfaction, were among aspects important to Century Inc., a Traverse City-based manufacturer that last year was awarded $137,500, the largest grant in the region.

The company, which specializes in precision machining, welding and heat treating, applied the money to train 110 employees in its Century Sun Metal Treating business division. Training included lean and continuous improvement principles, and to accommodate operations that run continuously, a typical two-day training session was condensed into a 14-hour day and repeated over three days to move through all the division’s employees.

“They were long days, a lot of coordination behind it,” said Jennifer Borkovich, Century’s communications manager.

She said that as a result of the training, there are new communication methods in the plant to ensure seamless transition between shifts and reporting of items that need attention, and employees are working more efficiently and “feel more empowered to get the answers that they need to successfully complete their job.”

“What we’re trying to do obviously is satisfy our customer, but we’re also trying to improve employee satisfaction,” she said. “When things go smoothly, not only is the customer happier as they get their product on time, but employees are happier as well.”

Borkovich said the grant program holds value for the region’s employers.

“Companies are trying to keep costs down, but working hard to retain employees and keep employees satisfied,” she said. “So having the opportunities through this grant to provide more opportunities for training is extremely valuable, to keep employees up here.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.