Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) recently unveiled a program to help small manufacturers adapt to demands that add automation to their plants’ capabilities.

Kevin McKinnon, DEED’s deputy commissioner, says the Automation Training Incentive Pilot Program provides training grants to small businesses implementing new automation technology. These companies are also looking to address skilled worker shortages, maintain competitiveness, and improve productivity, he adds.

“OEMs are adopting it,” according to McKinnon. “We’ve also heard that some are starting to require it in their supply chains, which affects a lot of small manufacturers.”

The new $500,000 grant program will provide grants of up to $25,000 to help small manufacturers offer staff training to cope with technological advancements. It’s a broad market. The program is limited to Minnesota-based manufacturers or other skilled production industries with 100 or fewer employees. To receive a grant, covered employees must be full-time and earning at least 120 percent of federal poverty guidelines, about $30,900 per year.

Currently, there are 7,000 manufacturers in the state who employ 100 employees or fewer. “We know there is a lot of demand,” McKinnon says. “We know that there’s a lack of knowledge out there, a lack of expertise. We’re hoping to help get them prepared.”

Applicants from smaller-based operations in rural areas will receive a high priority, as will companies that promise more significant pay increases for participants.

Other preferences will go to companies leveraging private funds (including their own), the rate of return on state investment, and whether participants will receive industry-recognized certifications.

Eligible training will be related to the implementation of new automation technology/equipment, such as:

  • Advanced technical skill training
  • Training on industry-specific equipment
  • Process/quality training
  • Safety training
  • Maintenance training
  • Train-the-trainer
  • Computer/technological skills

Funds must be used to offset direct training costs associated with training existing workers on new automation technology. These include:

  • Assessments, testing, and certifications
  • Curriculum development
  • Delivery of training
  • Trainee wages
  • Training materials and supplies
  • Trainer travel
  • Training equipment (on a pro-rated basis)

Expected outcomes can include:

  • Continuity of operations during the implementation of new automation technology
  • Retained jobs
  • Increased wages
  • Trainee certifications
  • Increased productivity and efficiency
  • Enhanced job satisfaction
  • Increased safety

Grants will be awarded June 30, 2020 on a first-come, first-served basis. Applications, approved by the DEED Commissioner, are typically turned around within a week of submission. Training must begin within six months of award and must be completed by December 31, 2020.

“This is a pilot program,” McKinnon says. “We are hoping to learn a lot through this, much like we did during the Job Training Incentive Program.” What eventually happened there, he says, was that participants in Greater Minnesota liked it so much they pushed their legislators for more. McKinnon hopes this program might experience a similar trajectory.

“We don’t know what the ultimate design will be. But we’re trying to get smarter about how we help employees receive the training they need to remain with their companies.”

McKinnon is careful to dispel the perception that automation displaces workers. “We don’t want to go there,” he says. “It is simply not the case.” McKinnon says DEED and other state agencies are using a couple of initiatives to study the future of work in Minnesota. “We believe this is a good step for our citizens working in manufacturing.”

Featured in the Fall 2019 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.

Return to Fall 2019 magazine.