PITTSFIELD — State Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II was in Berkshire County on Friday as part of the Baker-Polito administration's rollout of its $9.2 million Skills Capital Grants program.
Among other stops, Walker visited the BerkshireWorks employment and training office, where he met with Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and other officials. He later said during an interview at The Eagle that he was confident the county has been in the forefront in promoting collaborative approaches to job training and education and tailoring efforts to meet the current needs of employers.
"They are great at what they do," Walker said of BerkshireWorks. "They implement all of our workforce development programs. And so part of it was just — they do a great job and we wanted to get updated on all the work that they do."
He said the officials talked about changes coming with the new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which will be implemented in 2017, and calls for a re-evaluation of employment and training programs to make them as effective as possible, and will provide the bulk of funding for local career centers around the nation.
The act passed Congress in 2014 and replaces and updates the Workforce Investment Act of 1998.
In anticipation of the WIOA implementation, Walker said, a number of Baker administration initiatives are being developed. Those include working toward a "demand model" format to make sure career centers are working closely with the business community, community colleges, vocational high schools and related service providers to prepare individuals for the jobs that are available now or in the near future in their regions.
He said much of that is already in place at BerkshireWorks. "They have a great relationship with the business community, the community college does a great job, the [new Taconic] high school will be coming on shortly," Walker said. "They are doing a number of key programs, key initiatives that meet the demands out here, so that we won't have to restructure this career center."
State officials were in Western Massachusetts Friday to promote the skills grant program, which is now accepting applications for funding. The program, according to a release, is an initiative of Gov. Charlie Baker's Workforce Skills Cabinet and will provide funding in equipment for vocational-technical training and encourage career training that allows students to meet the needs of employers.
"The skills gap is real across the country, and many companies cannot find the talent they need to fill positions and further develop their local economic impact," said Baker in the release.
The program is part of the efforts of the Governor's Workforce Skills Cabinet to align education, workforce and economic development strategies across Massachusetts.
Baker tapped Walker, Education Secretary James Peyser, and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash to work together to develop policies to improve economic and job training opportunities for residents of the Commonwealth.
The officials announced the availability of the grants Friday at the future site of Holyoke Community College's Center for Culinary and Hospitality Excellence, located in the Holyoke Innovation District. Part of that growth is expected to be linked to a planned MGM casino and related development in nearby Springfield.
"Companies need to be able to attract and retain the best employees in the Commonwealth," Walker said in Holyoke. "We are packaging our resources from the different Secretariats to help educational institutions create a pipeline of skilled workers."
The Skills Capital grants will range from $50,000 to $500,000. While the grants do not require a match, applicants are encouraged to demonstrate cash and/or in-kind matches.
Grantees must meet certain criteria. Those include investments that lead to an increase in skilled workers to meet business-driven hiring needs; a focus on improving the skills of students or individuals facing employment barriers; leverage partnerships and funding toward those goals; and include investment that reflects regional planning, demonstrate sustainability and build on proven programs.
Eligible applicants include Massachusetts schools, institutions and organizations that provide career/vocational technical education programs, including all Chapter 74-approved vocational-technical schools, community colleges, and providers of training programs that meet the federal Perkins Act definition of career and technical education.
The grant applications must be submitted by Jan. 29.