Brennan Souza

Idaho Steel employees Brennan Souza, 27, welds in the company’s shop in Idaho Falls. Souza polished his welding skills through a College of Eastern Idaho workforce development class.

Amid an Idaho labor force shortage, the College of Eastern Idaho is partnering with eastern Idaho businesses to train the region's workforce, creating jobs and supplying the business community with much needed skilled workers.

CEI offers various workforce training and community education programs. CEI’s Workforce Training and Community Education division includes operation of the CTE (Career and Technical Education) Workforce Training Center. The Training Center is an administrative office whose charter is to provide non-credit classes for non-traditional students that teach new skills required in an ever-changing, technological world. It also provides community education classes for special interests, such as learning a new language or instrument or learning how to cook.

Workforce development classes teach skills for business management, computers and technology, healthcare and industry and trade.

Want to learn how to market your business on social media? CEI has a class for that. Need to brush up on your safety training? CEI has several OSHA classes.

Michelle Holt, executive director of CEI's Workforce Training Center, said evolving workplaces need "lifelong learners," so, while CEI offers plenty of programs for traditional students, right out of high school, there's an increasing need for less time-consuming and focused programs, such as a flagging class for construction employees or training on computer software programs — which change every year, it seems.

Since CEI transitioned from a technical college to a community college in 2017, its workforce training programs have grown.

"One of the positives that’s come from the transition from EITC to CEI is an increase in the size of this department," Holt said.

Two years ago the Workforce Training Center had two full-time employees. Now it has seven. The increase in staff has allowed the college to manage more programs and bring in more students, Holt said.

In the last fiscal year, CEI workforce training and community education programs interacted with nearly 17,000 students.

Contract training, classes customized for employers, had 10,915 students. There were 3,909 workforce training students, enrolled in classes that prepare for certification in positions such as apprenticeship, EMT, nurse’s assistant or dental assistant. And 2,137 students enrolled in community education, classes that teach introductory sign language or music classes for personal interest.

Filling a need

Workforce training programs exist to help business as much as students.

Eastern Idaho's unemployment rate is well below the national average at around 2.3 percent, according to the state Department of Labor, which is good for workers but it makes hiring difficult. As unemployment decreases the pool of hireable workers shrinks with it.

A shortage in skilled workers in the region has led businesses to take training into their own hands, partnering with CEI to help fund training, offer experienced instructors or simply provide a steady stream of students that enroll in CEI programs.

Some of eastern Idaho's most recognizable employers partner with CEI on apprenticeship and contract training programs. Among them are Idaho National Laboratory, Premier Technology, Idaho Steel, Spudnik Equipment and American Fabrication.

The Workforce Training Center's programs are flexible to meet the needs of businesses, Holt said.

New programs begin in response to an identified community need for a certain skill. CEI works with businesses to construct the class curriculum, find a qualified instructor and agree on a schedule and cost that's appropriate.

Polishing skills

One new CEI class, born from a business need, began last year. It's a professional welding class, which is a step up from CEI's introductory welding class and targets students that don't have the time or don't necessarily need to enroll in the college's full-time welding program.

"We were finding that employers in the region have a demand for welders but not enough supply," Holt said.

Premier Technology, a Blackfoot-based engineering, manufacturing and construction management company, created a training manager position to address the worker supply challenge.

"The shortage of skilled craftsman has been an issue for a long time now," said Chris Cox, Premier Technology's new training manager. "The only way we could see to fix that was to train guys ourselves. It's one of the reasons we partnered with CEI on this and the reason I have the job I have right now."

Premier Technology helped CEI develop the professional welding program and now it sends employees there, or employees volunteer, to polish their welding skills.

Idaho Steel, an Idaho Falls-based manufacturer, also partners with CEI on the welding program and helps fund it. The company has 15 to 20 employees that came out of the program, according to its human resources manager Heidi Oyola.

"We have welding students that funnel through regularly and we’re comfortable with what we're going to get from a student we get through that program," Oyola said.

Jay Bowman is an assistant production manager at Idaho Steel and taught one of the first professional welding classes in the fall. The class was every Saturday for eight hours over a six-week period.

Bowman taught two batches of 10 or 11 students — who were from "all walks of the industry" — technical welding skills, such as TIG (tungsten inert gas) and GTAW (gas tungsten arc) welding.

"We had numerous employers around the area that were interested in having some additional training for that particular process," he said.

The welding class students were employed at local manufacturing businesses but didn't necessarily have welding experience. But by the end of the class they could pass demonstrated competency tests.

"We had guys that had only welded once or twice in their life pass off a sample (weld) for a certified weld inspector," Bowman said.

Brennan Souza, 27, grew up in construction and had experience welding but not so much in TIG welding, which is 95 percent of the welding that Idaho Steel does. In an August job interview with the company, before he was hired on, Idaho Steel offered Souza the opportunity to take Bowman's CEI class on TIG welding, at no cost to him.

"I'm never going to say no to free knowledge," Souza said. "I took the opportunity."

Financial challenge

One of the Workforce Training Center's biggest challenges is financial aid.

While students who already have jobs can get their training paid for, either by their employer or by paying themselves, backed by a steady paycheck, those students who need the training before finding a job can have a tough time paying. As non-credit classes, workforce training is not eligible for financial aid.

CEI tries to keep classes as affordable as possible, Holt said, but some of the more technical classes require a large investment in equipment and space and that is reflected in class fees. Some classes cost less than $100 but others can cost more than $2,500.

"I would love if they had access to more financial aid," Holt said.