Photo: Imani Lytle

Kelley Ball of Performance Pop

Photo: Imani Lytle

Money Behind Manpower

How state-funded workforce training can attract new talent and keep existing businesses competitive

Performance POP creates in-store displays and does related printing for the likes of Heineken, Levi Strauss & Co., Home Depot, and Neiman Marcus. However, as the Dallas company grew, new training was required for its staff, but it needed additional funds to pay for all the skills upgrades its workforce demanded. After all, workforce support and training can be critical when luring and retaining new businesses, or new talent, into the region.

Enter the Skills Development Fund, a state-funded program that covers much of the cost of customized job training. The training is provided mostly through public community and technical colleges, along with the Texas Engineering Extension Service.

With the skills fund picking up the tab, more than 100 of Performance POP’s roughly 145 employees received schooling in 2014 and 2015 on various elements of their jobs. For instance, some machine operators learned how to set up computer-controlled devices for cutting hard materials, a skill that increased their value to the business. Other workers got up to speed on using software, including Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet program. And a number of folks learned how to bring to life “lean management” principles for achieving ongoing improvement through small changes in various parts of the company’s operations.

“The [development fund] not only helped our company, but I believe it also had a real impact on many of the careers of our employees,” says Kelley H. Ball, chief operating officer at Performance POP. 

Performance POP is one of thousands of Texas employers that has taken advantage of the Skills Fund since legislation creating the program was enacted in the mid-1990s. In the 16-county North Texas region, the fund made a total of $84.5 million in awards from its inception in September 1995 through the end of August 2014, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, which administers the program. 

The North Texas region, as defined in the Fund’s annual report, has brought in 26 percent of the program’s funding since its inception, according to Kelley Rendziperis, a principal and leader of the economic incentive services division at Site Selection Group, a Dallas-based location advisory firm.

But, Rendziperis notes, the North Texas region saw its share of Fund awards grow to 41 percent in 2014. 

“As the [Dallas-Fort Worth] market expands, the Skills Development Fund may become a more important factor in site selection decisions,” she says. “The fund has been used to develop and build upon the region’s strengths.” During that time frame, the fund has helped 4,074 employers create more than 101,000 jobs statewide and upgrade the skills of more than 215,000 existing workers, Workforce Commission data shows. Businesses in North Texas that have participated in the program range from cosmetics giant Mary Kay to furniture maker American Leather and Doctors Hospital at White Rock Lake.

The Skills Development Fund is a vital consideration for companies that are thinking about relocating or setting up operations in Dallas-Fort Worth, according to Susan Arledge, managing principal at Cresa Dallas, a leading tenant representation firm. “It is a very significant program, and critically important to those that will be bringing large numbers of employees or will be seeking highly qualified or trained individuals,” Arledge says. “Texas’ program is attractive, as it incorporates the state’s community and technical colleges, as well as local workforce development boards and economic development partners. Those organizations provide training, new-hire assistance, and customized training programs that the Skills Development Fund helps pay for.”

The Fund is also important for companies that are based in Texas or that are expanding their operations here, according to Mike Rosa, senior vice president of economic development at the Dallas Regional Chamber. “If a company’s hiring and skills needs exceed the local labor force capacity, or the company has a new technology, then having the Skills Development Fund is important,” he says.

For small companies in particular, the skills development fund can provide an avenue for improving their operations without a big outlay of cash. “There is no way we could have provided the training for these employees without the funding,” says Ball of Performance POP. “All of the costs associated with the instructors and the materials were covered in full. We are believers.”

First step: Find a partner

For an individual firm or a group of companies that need customized training for employees, the first step to taking advantage of the development fund is to join forces with a community or technical college. “The college, in conjunction with the business, develops a customized training plan,” says Lisa Givens, director of communications at the Texas Workforce Commission. The college then completes and submits an application, with the approval of the local workforce board, to the agency for a grant from the Skills Development Fund, she says. The workforce commission makes decisions on “quality applications” within 45 days. The application-to-approval process generally takes 90 days from the date when the business fully commits to participating in a project that the program may fund, Givens adds.

Grants from the program go to the college, which can broker relationships with other training providers if need be. The college must sign a contract with the workforce commission before getting any money. The school is responsible for providing assessment services, facilitating training, and administering the grant, Givens added.

Ultimately, the amount of a given grant will depend on how many people are receiving training and the types of information they will be learning. A single business may face a cap of $500,000 per grant, based on a target cost of $1,800 per trainee. The program may make grants of more than $500,000, such as for training for consortiums of businesses, Givens says.

What grants will, won’t pay for

Broadly speaking, grants pay for both the cost of customizing the training and delivering it to employees. Schools can also use up to 10 percent of the direct-training portion of a grant to buy equipment necessary to provide the training.

Money from the development fund cannot be used for any of the following, according to Givens:

-Training and related costs of a business that moves its worksite from one part of Texas to another

-Buying proprietary or production equipment for training of a single local employer

-Trainees’ wages

-Paying for travel costs for either trainees or instructors

-Trainees’ drug tests

As a rule, the skills fund targets industries and businesses with high-skill, high-wage jobs that are in demand, Givens says.

Getting the word out

Between September of this year and August 31, 2017, the Workforce Commission will dole out a total of $48.5 million in grants for the skills program. That should support 24,864 new and existing workers in Texas.

A big part of George Laffoon’s job description is getting the word out about those training dollars. He is projects leader in the solutions development operation of the Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development, which is a campus of El Centro College. Aside from the workforce commission, Laffoon’s group works with organizations like Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas, North Texas’ chambers of commerce, and the city of Dallas to find businesses that might be a good fit for a skills development project. “We use business networking and referrals,” he says.

For companies that take advantage, the training their employees receive can produce results.

Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic, a health center that serves West Dallas’ large Hispanic population, has been able to develop a system for prioritizing patients’ phone calls and providing guidance to callers because of training its staffers received via the development fund, according to CEO Leonor Marquez. “Our robust telephone triage system is one of the ways we provide the right care, the right way, and at the right time to our patients,” she says.