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Higher education, economic development groups: Keep state workforce development grant going

by Ryan Pivoney | January 13, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

An effort to extend a grant created to support a skilled workforce throughout Missouri has wide support among higher education and economic development groups.

On Wednesday, the Senate Progress and Development Committee took public testimony on a bill that would make changes to the Fast Track Workforce Incentive grant and remove its expiration, currently set for Aug. 28 of this year.

Nearly a dozen people provided public testimony, all in favor of the bill.

The Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, which launched in 2019 and is administered by the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, is a state financial aid program for adults pursuing a certificate, degree or industry credential that falls within a high-need skills area.

To qualify, recipients cannot have earned a bachelor's degree, must be at least 25 years old or have not enrolled in school within the last two years, and cannot make more than $40,000 when filing taxes individually, or $80,000 when filing taxes jointly.

SB 672, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Hough, a Greene County Republican, would eliminate the grant's expiration and add new language surrounding eligible apprenticeships, which are apprentice programs approved by the state Department of Labor.

Kara Corches, vice president of governmental affairs with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the organization supports the bill and the Fast Track program generally because workforce development is a priority within the business community.

"We haven't had a huge population boom in Missouri, so we need to be making the most use of every available Missourian possible, and Fast Track helps us achieve that," Corches said.

She said the legislation's support for apprenticeships is critical because they are a key way to grow the state workforce as students often earn a wage as they develop the new skills.

The grant, which covers all remaining tuition and fees costs not covered by other state and federal student financial aid awards, totalled more than $1.2 million for the 2020-21 school year.

Jessica Duren, MDHEWD communication director, said 310 students were awarded grants last year and the average award amount was $4,107.

The most popular programs, Duren said, were allied health, computer science, business and accounting.

Hough said he's been impressed with what the grant program has accomplished since it began three years ago and wants to build on it to help address the shortage of skilled workers in Missouri.

Higher Education Commissioner Zora Mulligan testified in favor of the bill and spoke on the program's popularity among women rejoining the skilled workforce and the need to attract more men.

"Fast Track does include construction and other programs that have been historically associated with the trades," Mulligan said. "So as the program continues to live and grow, it really is our goal to increase outreach that will attract more men to the program, because we think that's important."

Mulligan said Hough's legislation will broaden participation in apprenticeship programs by allowing the grant to cover some of the costs beyond instruction, such as the cost of the student's toolbox, boots or uniform.

Hough's legislation would also require the Coordinating Board of Higher Education to review the list of eligible programs and apprenticeship occupations annually to determine if more could be added.

Representatives from Western Governors University-Missouri, University of Central Missouri, the Missouri Community College Association, the Council on Public Higher Education, the Missouri Ambulance Association, Cox College, and the Lake Ozark Chamber of Commerce also spoke in support of the legislation.

Bill Gamble, representing the independent colleges and universities of Missouri, also spoke in favor of the bill, but said he wants more discussion around the grant's residency requirement.

Grant recipients are required to maintain residency in Missouri and work in the state for three years post-graduation to prevent the grant from becoming a loan with interest.

Gamble said the requirement has the potential to deter applicants and affects employment opportunities post-graduation, particularly if companies ask employees to transfer out of state.

"There are some of those aspects that give some thought to a participant -- do I really want to do this or not," Gamble said. "And do we affect an opportunity for them to go to another job?"

Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Progress and Development Committee, said she plans to vote on the changes to the Fast Track grant as a committee next week.

Print Headline: Lawmakers urged to keep workforce development grant going


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