Area wins millions to train high-tech workers

Until now, workforce development agencies in the Kansas City area have lacked resources to help unemployed workers who need a tad more training to land high-tech jobs available here.

On Friday, the Full Employment Council in Missouri — along with Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City, Kansas City Kansas Community College and the Workforce Partnership in Kansas — announced that the agencies and schools will split, roughly evenly, a $5 million federal grant to prepare area workers for high-level jobs often filled with foreign workers.

“This is about jobs, it is about economics, it is about getting people back to work,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said. “It is about competition and it is about having an adequate workforce.”

The grant money, from the U.S. Department of Labor, was drawn from a pool of $183 million in fees collected from companies seeking H1B visas to bring foreign workers to the United States to do specific, high-tech jobs. The Kansas City area received one of 29 grants nationwide.

In the Kansas City area, between October 2009 and September 2010, 777 H1B visas were sought just to fill information technology jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 57 percent of this area’s H1B visas were for information technology jobs. But many visas also were sought to fill tech jobs in engineering and health care.

In this region, most of the workers in those areas came from India and Japan, said Clyde McQueen, president and chief executive officer of the Full Employment Council.

The metro area’s share of the H1B grant initiative, which locally is called Earn IT & Learn IT, will be available almost immediately, said Scott Anglemyer, executive director of the Workforce Partnership.

Anglemyer’s agency and the Full Employment Council will begin recruiting “high-potential” workers and connecting them with employers and the community colleges within two months.

“The bulk of the money will go to job training,” said Anglemyer.

In some cases, he said, employers will be persuaded to hire workers who need on-the-job training, and the employer would be reimbursed for the training time. Other workers will get training on one of the college campuses.

“The employer will define the needs and if we don’t have people to do training for that exact niche, we will recruit them to meet the need,” said Mark James, MCC-KC chancellor.

With the four-year grant, the collaborating schools and workforce agencies expect to train about 360 workers over the life of the program.

“The reality is there are not enough qualified workers to fill the needs here in this region,” said Laura Evans, a talent strategist for Cerner Corp., which filed 78 H1B visa applications to employ foreign workers in 2011.

If the effort is successful, McQueen said, U.S. educators and workforce agencies will train so many high-tech workers using H1B fee money that employers would no longer need to bring foreign workers in to do those jobs because “we will fill those jobs with workers trained at home.”