Northwest Innovations has announced it will back a multi-million dollar program to train hard-to-employ workers and recent high school graduates with the skills needed to its proposed $1 billion methanol plant in Kalama.
The educational program, which does not yet has a name, is being developed in partnership with Lower Columbia College and Workforce Southwest Washington, the partners announced Friday. It will ensure that 20 percent of Northwest’s initial workforce of about 200 people will be made up of adults and young people who may have difficulty finding a job traditionally.
“This is the first time that a business has ever come to us and said, ‘We want to fund a program like this.’ Usually what businesses do is they say, ‘How can you get me this employee that I need that has these skills?’ ” said Jeanne Bennett, CEO of Workforce Southwest Washington.
“What I think that Northwest Innovation Works is doing —which is innovative and different and unique and wonderful — is they're going to invest in their own workforce … upfront,” Bennett said Friday.
Eligible applicants will receive two years of free college courses to work towards a corporate certificate through Lower Columbia College. (They won’t earn an associate’s degree but they will earn credits that can be used toward a degree in the future.) Students will be paid a full-time, minimum wage salary while they attend school. Upon completion, they will be guaranteed a job at Northwest Innovation Works, the company said.
The program will train a cohort of 40 Cowlitz County residents — 20 will be recent graduates from local high schools and 20 will be people with barriers to employment as defined by federal guidelines. Those include 14 categories such as single mothers, people of color, people with disabilities and mental health problems, veterans and Native Americans.
“The people that are working 25 hours a week and are trying to pay for day care and are really struggling — we could change their world completely,” said Richard DeBolt, Northwest Innovation Works spokesman.
The 20 high school graduates will be spread out over four years, with five new graduates every year. The timing of the program's start date depends on when Northwest Innovation Works wraps up financing for the plant and receives all of its permitting.
The program will run concurrently with construction of the plant itself so that the first batch of workers will be ready to start when the plant is complete.
“Companies usually don’t set up a training program two years in advance, which is great foresight because usually we’re scrambling on the back end to get things ready,” Bennett said.
Northwest Innovation will fully fund the program, which is expected to cost seven figures, the company said.
The program will be similar to other corporate certificate programs Lower Columbia College already runs that are customized to specific companies.
“The employees, when they finish our training programs, they really are prepared and ready to just hit the ground running with that specific organization,” said Hahli Clark, executive director of corporate partnerships and training at LCC.
Yet Vee Godley, Northwest Innovation CEO, said the skills developed in the program can be applied elsewhere, too.
“Once this is complete, these people will have a true vocational skillset that can transition well beyond our project as they move on in their lives. That’s the real key to this,” Godley said.