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Between the Lines: The Charlie Sheen Guide to Winning Workforce Development Grants

It doesn't take "Adonis DNA" or "Tiger Blood" to win workforce development grants from the US Department of Labor.  It does, however, require well-defined functional relationships with multiple employers in your region. This one theme has become pervasive in DOL programming in FY 2014, whether you applied to recent opportunities such as Youth CareerConnect and Youthbuild or have proposals under development for H-1B  Ready to Work Partnership Grants (Due June 19) or the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program (TAACCT - Due July 9).  Of course, the concept of employer collaboration goes by different names in different program. The H-1B program, for example, calls it "Ready to Work," while TAACCCT refers to it as "Core Element 6: Sector Strategies and Employer Engagement". 

With H-1B, the requirement comes in the form of a strong partnership with a minimum of three regional employers. This particular program is funded through H-1B Visa Fees that employers pay when they hire foreign workers for certain technical positions.  At its core, the program is about creating employment opportunities for Americans by training American workers to fill these occupations.  Traditionally, H-1B achieved this goal by funding projects that provided training to incumbent workers, to move folks up the career ladder into higher paying positions and avoid job loss. However, this year, the program includes a "Ready to Work" requirement and intends to focus 85% of its funding on the long-term unemployed.  

The message accompanying this new focus on employability is quite simple:  A close working relationship with the business sector is the fastest route to move folks from the unemployment rolls into paying jobs.  There is no doubt that while the program will require applicants to track educational attainment and employment data, the Administration is ultimately aiming for a decline in one key number: the unemployment rate.  In some sense, the idea of reducing our reliance on foreign workers is an afterthought of the current iteration of the program, in that the target audience must be American in order to be counted in the move from the long-term unemployed to the "working" category

In many ways, the fourth round of TAACCCT also takes employer engagement to another level, but similar to H-1B, the underlying purpose of the program seems to take a back seat to the overarching mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs".  TAACCCT, as its names implies, is meant to retrain American workers that have been adversely affected by trade policies and actions.  Thus, target participants for the program are workers who are eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance. In reality, they simply get priority placement in the projects funded through TAACCCT, which admittedly does seem strange. Could you imagine if Medicare simply gave those 65 and older priority placement in its health insurance program but really allowed anyone without health coverage to join? 

The good news, however, is that any adult worker looking to be trained or retrained in employment can potentially be served through TAACCCT programs.  In fact, regardless of the underlying purposes behind H-1B or TAACCCT, the truth is that winners must give priority placement to Veterans over any other group, including those eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance.  In that sense, TAACCCT applicants would be wise to create articulation agreements with the Armed Services and allow Veterans to enter their training programs with some credit hours accrued based on their skills training in the military.  This strategy positions the military as both an employer and an initial training provider.  But that in and of itself would not be enough.  TAACCCT applicants must also have partnerships with at least two employers and a regional industry representative for each sector and site location that they target with their project.  Depending on the number of industries and site locations they target, the level of employer partnership for winning projects may be extensive.

All this discussion about employer engagement and jobs leads to one important question that must be addressed by applicants to DOL grant programs.  What constitutes functional employer engagement?  Many employers will be willing to provide a letter of support to an applicant indicating that a particular training program will result in skills sets that the business is seeking in its employees.  This level of employer involvement will not get past the front door during the application review process.  These DOL programs require full-fledged memorandums of agreement that spell out a significant role for the businesses in the project.  Successful applicants will involve employers in actually developing the curricula they will ultimately deploy. 

The idea is to train workers quickly (less than two years when possible) and make sure the program is specific to the credentials and qualifications that are necessary to move directly into employment at the partner businesses.  In addition to curriculum development, competitive projects will involve registered apprenticeships, internships and other practicum experience at the employer sites.  Businesses should be able to articulate what their labor force demands will be over the next several years as well as their plans for selecting training participants for eventual employment at their companies.   The most successful applicants will find a role for employers throughout the entire project.  For example, considering that these DOL programs focus on professional occupations in high demand, you can envision a role for employers in the professional development of faculty and training providers. 

Normally, knowing the origins and underlying legislative authority of grant programs is a key factor in understanding the gray areas and finding the competitive edge.   However, the winning strategy when it comes to DOL's workforce development grant programs is to weave employer involvement into the fabric of the project.  Connecting employers to the project from the beginning (professional development of faculty, curriculum development) and maintaining their participation throughout (practicum experience, real-world symposiums, internships) provides the greatest opportunity to achieve the back end results of employment and jobs that the DOL is striving to achieve.  DOL has several names for this strategy, whether it is "Ready to Work" or "Employer Engagement"... Charlie Sheen would no doubt call it WINNING!