Trained workers would be more employable
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- To improve the skills and safety of agricultural workers, Rep. Bruce Chandler has sponsored a bill creating a statewide Agricultural Labor Skills and Safety Grant Program.
Previous legislation has appropriated money to train ag workers, but House Bill 1072 would establish a program to "give employees a chance to move from agriculture as a job to agriculture as a career," the Granger Republican told the House Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.
The ag industry has become more sophisticated technologically, he said, and different operations often occur simultaneously. Workers should know not only how to handle equipment, but they also should learn the business of ag, including first aid, workplace safety, personnel management, pesticide safety and English as a second language.
The program would be centrally located, but training would take place at work sites around the state.
Michael Gempler, of the Washington Growers League, said employers have difficulty filling jobs that require expertise. A lot of entry-level employees have plenty of enthusiasm and want to do the jobs, he said, but they don't have the training.
"Our members want the ability to hire someone with the confidence that person can be left alone with a $60,000 piece of equipment," he said.
Once workers have those skills, they will have more employability, longer employment, transferable skills and likely higher wages, he said.
The bill calls for the Department of Commerce to select a community-based organization with the ability to carry out the objectives of the program. With a grant of up to $750,000 a year, that organization would:
* Design and implement an agricultural skills development program and provide health and safety training.
* Develop a plan to increase the number of skilled workers through a recruitment process.
* Evaluate training and service delivery strategies for workers and employers.
* Partner with an agricultural association in developing and providing the training curriculum.
* Use a training delivery system sensitive to the needs of employers and to the barriers workers face to employment.
Scott Dilley, of the Washington State Bureau, suggested that the bill be changed to specify the funding source, that the money come from the state's general fund and not from workers' comp premiums.
He also said that, instead of one grant, Commerce should have flexibility in the number of grants to recognize different approaches and to stimulate competition.
Teresa Mosqueda, of the Washington State Labor Council, said the safety issue is critically import. Every day 243 ag workers lose work time to accidents, and every year 476 people lose their lives to accidents in the farming industry. She said a worker training program would present "great opportunities to prevent injuries and death."
Mosqueda requested language in the bill to allow input from the Latino community in the design of the program.