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  • Q&A with Roger Fortner

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    Roger Fortner is director of the Workforce Development Division of the Department of Postsecondary Education. He was recently interviewed by Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky

    Montgomery Business Journal: What are your responsibilities as director of the Workforce Development Division?  Fortner: I am responsible for managing the day-to-day activities of the Department of Postsecondary Education’s Workforce Development Division. This entails the management and oversight of the various workforce development grants across the state to our 25 community and technical colleges and the Alabama Community College System’s existing industry training entity that is called Alabama Technology Network (ATN). Even before the funds are granted to our community colleges, there is a lot of preliminary work done upfront – namely by our partner network called Workforce Development Councils of Alabama.

    What do those councils do? These councils ensure that the monies that are awarded go to programs that are actually needed by business and industry. We average 100 workforce development grants each year and it touches the lives of tens of thousands of Alabamians.

    What is the combined amount of those grants and what is the range of the grants? The last complete fiscal year was last year and we awarded $8.1 million. They ranged anywhere from $5,000 to probably $250,000.

    How many grant requests does the department receive from the 25 community colleges and ATN? I think last year we received 150 grant requests to the tune of about $15 million. We have a limited amount of resources.

    How is it determined that some grants are awarded and others rejected? Our regional Workforce Development Councils are the core element of our workforce development system in Alabama. There are 10 regions in the state. These councils are coordinated by my office, but are actually business-led and industry-driven. They (council members) are volunteers that are business and industry folks. They have a strategic plan. Each council annually has to do a strategic plan and identify what’s important to that region. The grant applications that we discussed flow through those councils and the councils prioritize them and send them to us.

    The councils make recommendations. They do. We figured out that rather than us sitting here in Montgomery and telling them what they need (the councils tell us).

    How many members are on a council? Twenty-five or 30. Some of the regions are more populated than the others. Montgomery is in Region 7.

    How many people do you have on staff? There are seven in my division.

    Is the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development a different entity than the Workforce Development Division of the Department of Postsecondary Education? Not actually. The Governor’s Office of Workforce Development is our little division. The two terms are pretty much synonymous.

    Often times there are silos within a large organization, but I know that your division partners with the Department of Postsecondary Education and of course the Alabama Community College System. The Workforce Councils of Alabama that we just talked about ensure that we’re not a silo. The 25 community colleges and ATN all attend those regional council meetings, but they are not voting members. Only the business-type folks and economic developers and those types of folks are your voting membership. We have staff that attends every regional council meeting. That’s where open discussions take place at the table.

    That must give your department a great understanding of what the needs are in a specific region. It does and the strategic plans I mentioned, they send those to us each year. We put those out on our website so anybody can see what the priority is in Region 7. We ask (the councils) to identify the top five industries in the region and the top 10 occupations that they feel are important. And that’s just a minimum.

    That sounds like a highly focused, need-based approach. That’s right. We even ask the regional councils to ask the community college and say, ‘Send me applications this year for grants for welding training.’ They can target the occupations that are important.

    What workforce training programs are available for existing business and industry and aren’t those delivered through the community colleges and ATN? That’s correct. The training available for existing business and industry is whatever they need. It’s customized and tailored to meet whatever their specific need is. Sometimes they don’t even know what their need is. They’ll call one of our service providers and say, ‘Come out and talk to us.’ We will go out and conduct a basic needs assessment and make recommendations on what we think will help them.

    Are you saying the community colleges will conduct the basic needs assessment?  Yes, the community colleges.

    What are some of the popular training programs? Lean manufacturing. We get a lot of requests for environmental and safety and health; continuous improvement; and then a whole host of continuing education for employees. Let’s say (a company) feels they need leadership training for their leaders or future leaders. Or let’s say they get a new computer application and they need some help (teaching) their employees how to use it. Or let’s say they see a need to help develop customer service – just anything that they need.

    Businesses and industries may not be aware that those training programs exist through the community colleges and ATN. Does it matter what size the company is? No, it does not.

    Where is the training held? There are essentially two different kinds of training: Open enrollment, which is what it sounds like. We have a room and we’re having a class and employees from different companies sign up. If it is targeted to a single company – a corporate client – then oftentimes they go to the business and conduct it (the class) right there.

    How much do the training programs cost? That varies as you can imagine there are a lot of factors like what kind of training the customer wants and the amount; the number of days changes the equation; the level of complexity of the course. Sometimes we get in a position where we’re unable with one of our employees in the community college system to deliver the training so we end up hiring a third-party provider and that will change the dollar amount.

    Please talk about the existing industry training program in such sectors as aviation, construction, health care, IT and manufacturing? The existing industry training program is administered by my office and again, it’s the community colleges and ATN that do the training, but this is where an Alabama company can request funding assistance from our office for up to $15,000. It’s a grant they get from our office to cover the cost of training. All they have to do is contact their local community college or ATN center. It’s a simple application and our community college and ATN folks will complete the application for them. All they have to do is sign it. There is one final requirement that’s important to know. The company that is receiving the training must provide a 100 percent match of the funds that are awarded. This is what we refer to as a soft match, which is typically satisfied by having the company employees on the company payroll while the training is being conducted and their salary and benefits offsets (to meet that match).

    Is that existing industry training program for all sectors or targeted sectors? It’s for all.

    That’s a great program. It is, and believe it or not, we don’t get a whole lot of applications for that.

    What is the incumbent worker training program? The incumbent worker training program is much like the existing industry training program I just described. This is a program managed by our friends down the road at the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs or ADECA. There are some differences naturally, but the primary differences are: No. 1, it’s federally funded; No. 2, the cap amount for ADECA’s incumbent worker training program is $30,000 per company, where ours is $15,000.

    Does the incumbent worker training program also have that soft match? Yes, it’s a soft match. There is a lifetime cap amount of $60,000 per company for training.

    Isn’t there an on-the-job training program? That is another program managed by ADECA. It is a really neat program. There are two OTJ (on-the-job) programs: new hire and performance-based. It’s another federally funded program by the U.S. Department of Labor. In the new hire program, employers can receive up to 50 percent of reimbursement for hourly wages that are paid to people they hire.

    For how long? I’m not familiar with the exact time. There are also some retention requirements. The other OTJ performance-based program is designed for a large number (of employees) that you need for just a short period of time. I would direct anybody that is interested in either the incumbent worker program or OTJ programs to ADECA’s website and hit the workforce development tab.

    Let’s talk about career and technical education programs. Career and technical education (CTE) is the bread-and-butter of workforce development in Alabama and in the nation as a whole. CTE supports the manufacturing industry and there is a neat partnership between business and industry and our community college system. The business folks help our community college system by helping us develop and modify the curriculum that is instructed in our programs. They have input into what is being taught in our college classrooms and labs. It helps keep the education we’re offering current and relevant so we’re not teaching outdated and antiquated methodology.

    I know that Mercedes-Benz has worked closely with Shelton State Community College in creating a curriculum. Is that widespread in the community college system? The program that Shelton State has with Mercedes is called their mechatronics program. It’s a seven-term program with instruction at Shelton State Community College and then an additional 18 months of training with Mercedes-Benz. During the seven terms, students work eight hours a week right on the plant floor at Mercedes.

    Is that program in a class by itself? There are others. There’s another great program that is similar over at Southern Union State Community College in Auburn-Opelika. It’s a six-term curriculum and it’s conducted between Southern Union and instead of the Mercedes model of just one company – this one is between Southern Union and 12 different manufacturing companies in that area. The students learn at the college campus and they work 24 hours a week at these different plants and work right on the plant floor. The students are really learning real-life situations and they are experiencing real-life situations. They have an assigned mentor at these industries, which are like a journeymen-level mentor, and they’re learning from the old pro. They learn on the classroom side. They learn the real plant floor side. They come out very well trained.

    It would be great to see that on a widespread basis. Is that a few years away? There are not as many as we would like yet, but there are more and more. Mercedes is a unique situation. They are a huge corporation. A lot of these (companies) over in Auburn-Opelika are more of the tier suppliers to Hyundai and Kia.

    Talk about how companies benefit by participating in the scholarship program for dual enrollment students. It’s not just businesses affected. (As of) January 1 of this year, companies and individual taxpayers can donate to the program – it’s called Alabama Future Workforce Initiative. The initiative will provide eligible high school students an opportunity to concurrently enroll in college-level career technical education courses while they are still in high school. Think about that. The students are in high school learning these high-skill, high-wage occupations. When they come right out of high school it’s not unusual for them to get a job making pretty serious dollars. Maybe they want to do an academic transfer and continue at a four-year university somewhere, but they’ll have two years under their belt with the community college, which they got out of the way while they were in high school. Sometimes these students will graduate high school and receive their diploma and then they’ll take 10 more steps down the way and receive an associate degree on the same day.

    Fantastic. It is fantastic. The contributions we discussed are made right to the Department of Postsecondary. The donors are eligible to receive a state income tax credit. A tax credit is a lot better than a deduction. Up to 50 percent of their contribution can qualify for a tax credit. The tax credit is limited to 50 percent of their state income tax liability. It’s quite a great deal. In no case can a donor receive more than $500,000 for a tax credit for those really big corporate donors or would-be individuals.

    The state has capped the amount that is tax creditable to $5 million. At max, we could receive $10 million dollars for our community college system and the state Legislature is giving the tax credit. We’re getting a state appropriation – this is our first year – for career tech dual enrollment and it’s a $5 million appropriation. If we were to get that $10 million and this $5 million, we could (handle) 10,000 students a year.What is the goal for contributions to the dual enrollment scholarship program?

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