FRANKFORT (AP) — Already boasting plants for Ford, General Motors and Toyota, Kentucky seemed like an ideal place for Volvo to build a new $500 million plant, its first in the U.S.
But Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said Wednesday the bluegrass state lost that competition last year in part because executives were concerned they would not find enough qualified people to fill the skilled manufacturing jobs required to produce the cars.
“It’s heartbreaking to me,” Bevin said. “I wish we could get a mulligan on that one.”
Bevin said he hopes to change that by offering $100 million to schools, businesses and local governments to come up with proposals to train Kentucky workers for high-skilled jobs. Bevin and Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner officially opened the pre-application process for the Work Ready Skills Initiative on Wednesday. They hope to award the projects by early November.
A spokesman for Volvo did not respond to a request for comment. Volvo officials announced last year they would build their plant in South Carolina that would employ up to 4,000 people.
Kentucky’s unemployment rate has fallen to 5.1 percent in May. But state officials say just over half of the state’s working age population is actually working, ranked 47th in the country. Part of the reason is Kentucky has an above-average number of residents receiving Social Security disability benefits, and it has a higher percentage of adults aged 65 and older.
Any groups putting in an application has to pay at least 10 percent of the project’s cost. Applicants cannot use the money to hire people or pay for other operating expenses. But they can use it to build things, purchase equipment and advertise.
State officials plan to borrow the $100 million. The state legislature approved the $100 million loan earlier this year. They also passed a separate law setting up the rules for how the money would be awarded. But Bevin vetoed that law, allowing him to write the rules himself.
Bevin said Wednesday a panel of nine people, including government officials and business leaders, will score the proposals based on criteria that has not yet been released. If no projects get approved, the state won’t borrow the money.
“If not a cent of it is spent, it’s because not a cent of it deserves to be spent and that won’t bother me,” Bevin said.
Bevin has repeatedly said Kentucky is facing a financial crisis because of its massive public pension debt, estimated at more than $30 billion. He has adamantly opposed Democratic proposals to borrow money to address the pension problem, but said borrowing $100 million for help working training is different.
“How can we not invest in our workforce,” he said. “There is no way we can be the best version of ourselves without deploying every cent we can into infrastructure and education.”
Bevin convinced the legislature to approve budget cuts of 4.5 percent on most colleges and universities over the next two years, including the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which handles much of the state’s workforce training. Recently, the system announced it had eliminated 500 jobs, of which 170 were filled, and would increase tuition by 6.1 percent.
KCTCS President Jay Box said in a news release he welcomes “the opportunity the Work Ready Skills Initiative provides for much needed upgrades to the facilities and technology our colleges need to keep up with the demand for local workforce training.”