West Michigan businesses benefit from bulk of job training grants

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WALKER, Mich. — When Austin Fischer, 23, started his apprenticeship with Walker Tool and Die nearly four years ago, he didn't imagine a long-term career could materialize without a traditional college education.

Now nearing the end of his apprenticeship with the company, he's not only planning on having secure employment, but setting lofty long-term goals to work his way up through the company ranks.

"Eventually I’d like to become one of the lead die makers here," Fischer told FOX 17, grateful for the opportunity to learn a skilled trade after starting at the company with little knowledge of tool and die-making.

“I’m a very hands-on person, so if I can’t do it with my hands I can’t comprehend it," he said. "I encourage anybody who is like that to get into a skilled trade, because I never thought I’d go to college and now I am.”

Currently, Fischer is one of seven apprentices working for Walker Tool and Die, which provides a four-year program that includes courses at Grand Rapids Community College and paid work coupled with hands-on training.

The company plans to open up three additional apprenticeship positions after being awarded a $15,000 grant from Michigan's Skilled Trades Training Fund.

On Monday, the state announced more than $17 million in grant money would be awarded to hundreds of companies across Michigan as part of a program which aims to "help employers develop the talent they need to fill thousands of available skilled trades jobs," according to a release from the state's Talent Investment Agency.

"Often times we have young people start with no experience whatsoever," said Jerry Roersma, Walker Tool and Die's apprenticeship coordinator. "They spend about three to six months in an entry level position and then we try to move them into an apprenticeship after about six months that last about four years."

The funding is on track to create more than 3,800 jobs and retain more than 11,000 positions, based on projections made by the 480 employers which applied for and received the money, said Ken Silfven, deputy press secretary for the TIA.

West Michigan as a region received the bulk of the grant money—more than $6 million—awarded to 170 business. Companies offering apprenticeship programs have a greater chance of receiving the funding.

>> MORE: See the full list of grant recipients here

Roersma said once his apprentices are trained, they are virtually guaranteed a position at the company, which has had a hard time replacing workers who continue to age out faster than they can be replaced.

“Now we’re playing catch up," he told FOX 17 after the company, like many in the industry, shed a good chunk of its experienced workforce during the 2008 recession.

"We have a lot of gray hair and we’re looking to draw some new, young talent.”

And he says West Michigan, steeped in advanced manufacturing, provides more than enough opportunity for young workers.

“There’s a lot of people who, for whatever reason, decide not to go college," Roersma said. "There’s been a perception that there’s not a lot of opportunities available for those people. But in West Michigan we have a lot skilled careers, good lifelong careers, with job opportunities and job security.”

The companies benefiting from the grant extend beyond traditional manufacturing to include IT companies and even health providers, according to a list provided by the state.

Spectrum Health, which received more than $95,000 in grant money, will allocate the funding to multiple areas, including medical assistant apprenticeships, a spokesperson told FOX 17.

The state requires companies that receive the funding to provide records about when an individual completes training and how many are retained by the employer, which is then compiled on the state's online “dashboard."

This is the fourth year of the program. The state claims nearly 8,000 jobs were created in the first three years, with about 26,000 employees learning new skills to retain their jobs.

Funding for the training program comes from payments paid to the state from individuals or companies that owe money to the Unemployment Insurance Agency for penalties.

However, the agency has had problems in the past after it was uncovered through a FOX 17 Problem Solvers investigation that thousands of unemployed Michiganders were being forced to pay penalties after being wrongly accused of fraud by the state. A bill to reform the agency is pending in the Legislature.

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