After Auto(mation) Pilot

WVPA member co-ops’ workforce grant taking off to foster business growth

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One way that we can demonstrate we are committed to the community is by investing in local businesses. … [I]t’s great to be able to show that commitment to them.

– Joan Huck
Finance Manager, Citizens Electric Corp.

A new rural economic development grant program piloted last year is taking off in 2023.

Wabash Valley Power Alliance partnered with its 23 member electric distribution cooperatives in Indiana, Illinois and Missouri last year to create the Workforce Automation Grant. They developed the grant to support businesses with workforce, supply chain and other challenges they have encountered in the last few years. The grant, which provides up to $15,000 for a company’s employees to train on new software or equipment, is available for businesses served by WVPA member co-ops. Fleece Performance Engineering in Indiana and Buchheit, Inc., in Missouri were the first grant recipients in the pilot program.

An employee at Fleece Performance Engineering. The diesel trucks parts manufacturer received an Automation Workforce Grant from Hendricks Power Cooperative, its local electric co-op.

“The grant is flexible to support businesses by helping with the costs associated with keeping employees skilled up in areas of need, which helps companies stay competitive,” said Brian Anderson, director of economic development for Wabash Valley Power. “While businesses are moving in the direction that they need, the grant can address some of the costs to get there.”

Fleece Performance, a diesel truck parts manufacturer, used the grant to buy machinery to more efficiently create wire harnesses that secure wires and cables. Fleece also purchased a training package from the equipment manufacturer.

Buchheit, Inc., a family-owned company with more than a half-dozen businesses, received an $8,000 grant from Citizens Electric Corp. The grant supported Carriage House Premier Cabinets, one of Buchheit’s businesses, to train five new employees and existing workers for new technology when Carriage House moved into a larger facility.

“One way that we can demonstrate we are committed to the community is by investing in local businesses,” said Joan Huck, finance manager for Citizens Electric who has worked with Buchheit on multiple projects over the years. “Buchheit is one of our larger members, so it’s great to be able to show that commitment to them.”

Recent supply chain challenges and the energy crisis in Europe from the war in Ukraine have led to more companies investing in the U.S., Anderson said. Low unemployment levels have led to more businesses automating processes so that employees can manage more facets of production, he added.

Anderson noted that businesses also are automating physically demanding aspects of their manufacturing processes to limit worker injuries and lower health care costs.

The storage area for the new Carriage House facility in Missouri. Buchheit, Inc., which owns Carriage House, received an Automation Workforce Grant from Citizens Electric Corp., its electric cooperative, to train employees on new equipment in the facility.

Fleece Performance and Buchheit were aware of the economic development support offered by their electric co-ops. Each had previously worked with their electric co-op on Power Moves® rebates for energy efficiency upgrades that lowered the companies’ long-term energy costs.

“We are seeing a strong correlation between expansion, automation, growth and training,” Anderson said. “A lot of our opportunities have come from companies that are also expanding or in the midst of increasing their footprint, adding staff or new equipment.”

The two-question grant application is now available on the business rebates page for users to provide initial project information. Businesses also should contact their local electric cooperative to begin the process. It will be an opportunity for them to learn about other economic development support, such as Power Moves rebates and incentive wholesale power rates, that may be available.

“As consumer-owned electric cooperatives, WVPA and our member co-ops are invested in those we serve,” said Jeff Conrad, president and CEO of Wabash Valley Power. “We are more than a power provider to the families and businesses on our lines. We are partners committed to supporting their needs so that they know that they made the right choice to invest in our community.”