The Trump administration has rejected a request from the LePage administration to eliminate Maine’s three business-led workforce boards that help coordinate regional job training programs for laid-off workers and other job seekers.

In a letter dated July 11, Gov. Paul LePage asked U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta to allow Maine to replace the current configuration with just one statewide entity that would oversee job training, supplemented with volunteer groups throughout the state that would provide information about local workforce needs.

Currently the three regional workforce boards led by businesses, which are based in Brunswick, Lewiston and Bangor, receive federal funding from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to pay for clients’ job search assistance, career counseling, classroom training and on-the-job training. They don’t receive state funding.

Between July 2015 and June 2016, 2,132 job seekers — 987 low-income adults, 546 laid-off workers and 599 youth — received some type of free, personalized help, according to the State Workforce Development Board’s most recent annual report.

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In his letter, LePage said replacing the three boards with one would free up money for skills training “versus being used for program administration by multiple pass-thru organizations.”

He also argued that having a single board would allow the state to prioritize rural areas. “There is currently a geographic mismatch: industries in decline are disproportionately in rural regions while industries that are growing are disproportionately in cities,” he wrote.

The U.S. Department of Labor denied LePage’s request recently, saying in an undated letter obtained by the BDN that it did not have the authority to change Maine’s workforce system structure.

“There are currently no statutory or regulatory procedures for a State with multiple local workforce development areas to become a single-entity State,” wrote Byron Zuidema, deputy assistant secretary at the Employment and Training Administration.

Tim Sardano, deputy communications director at the Maine Department of Labor, said the department is disappointed by the decision and is now weighing its options.

It is possible for the workforce boards to combine if it’s done in a collaborative manner between the state and local regions, said Joanna Russell, executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board. Her board is the result of a merger in July 2016 between two boards that separately served the Bangor region and Aroostook and Washington counties.

“They’re able to do it if everyone is in harmony with that,” Russell said. “There are steps that are outlined in the law that have to be followed, and … to my knowledge, none of the steps were adhered to at all.”

Each of the workforce boards, in addition to the Maine County Commissioners Association, opposed the governor’s request, saying the LePage administration neither told them of its proposal nor reached out to them directly about any concerns with the current system’s setup.

In a letter to the federal government, Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., which oversees training on behalf of Coastal Counties Workforce Board for job seekers in the midcoast and southern Maine, said the LePage administration’s arguments in favor of consolidation were faulty.

If the state wanted to spend more of its federal funding on job seekers, it could do so by taking less for administrative, overhead and other purposes, it wrote. Of Maine’s $9.4 million in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding for June 2016 to July 2017, the state Department of Labor retained nearly $2.3 million — about 24 percent — for overhead and other activities that are related to job training but do not directly benefit residents. Meanwhile, the local boards use 7.63 percent of the total funding for administrative purposes.

“We contend that there are plenty of efficiencies to be had if the state looked internally,” Coastal Counties wrote.

It also pointed out that the boards do more than handle one pot of federal money. Coastal Counties has administered $77.8 million in workforce funds since its inception, with $34 million, or 44 percent, obtained through competitive grants.

“Regrettably, the Maine Department of Labor has failed to bring in competitive funding even close to our accomplishments. From our vantage point, the 7.63% of administrative funding we receive from WIOA has a substantial ROI for our region,” it wrote.

In addition, the organization pointed out that rural areas already do receive more workforce funds than other regions on a per-person basis. “Built into the formulas are criteria that actually favor areas experiencing high-unemployment, declining manufacturing industries, concentrations of poverty and other factors,” it wrote.

LePage proposed having volunteer groups provide feedback on local workforce conditions, but the current boards are already made up of volunteers, with some paid staff, said Michael Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc.

“How are you going to get volunteer boards with no staff?” Bourret said. “The only difference is you’d have state staff doing what we do. … There’s really no savings here.”

In 2012, Gov. Paul LePage attempted to consolidate what were then four regional workforce boards into one. In addition, he proposed that eight regional chambers of commerce regularly convene businesses to discuss the skills they wanted their area job training programs to focus on.

The federal government didn’t approve the request because of problems with state government’s management of workforce funds. Also, LePage didn’t have the support of local boards.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...