State initiatives stepping in to fill much-needed skilled manufacturing job openings

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Pennsylvania suffers from a lack of skilled labor to fill numerous manufacturing job openings, a rising number that stakeholders across the Commonwealth say has resulted in a cap on the state’s economic growth.

Fortunately, several initiatives are underway across Pennsylvania to rectify the issue.

At the Lancaster, Pa.-based Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, for example, an April 10 dedication and ribbon-cutting event heralded the opening of a new complex that will house three of the college’s in-demand programs: HVAC/R, metals fabrication and welding, and computer integrated machining.

The Thaddeus Stevens College Greiner Advanced Manufacturing Center, located just a few blocks from the college’s main campus, “is a model of collaboration between bipartisan government, industry and the community coming together to address an urgent and growing need to meet a labor skills gap in technology, advanced manufacturing and construction in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and across the country,” William Griscom, president of the college, told Pennsylvania Business Report.

Griscom said during an interview this month that there’s “absolutely not” enough skilled manufacturing labor in Pennsylvania.

“Last year we had 1,400 employers come to us with over 3,000 job openings for 400 graduates,” he said. “Here it is April and already we’ve had 1,233 employers with 4,000 jobs for about 400 graduates.”

Sara Jones, director of program development at The Challenge Program Inc., agreed and told PBR that the Pittsburgh region alone faces a potential shortage of 80,000 workers by 2025.

“Baby boomers are retiring at a rate of 10,000 people per day and taking years of experience and knowledge with them,” Jones said. “In Pennsylvania, many of our small communities continue to lose their best and brightest young people to cities across the world, where opportunities may seem more abundant.”

Griscom and Jones both blamed the situation on a so-called fake reality that exists in America around obtaining high-priced, four-year, traditional higher education degrees.

“Students have been told that for a successful career and life, a college degree was the one and only path,” said Jones. “This way of thinking is why two-thirds of USA high school students pursue a four-year degree after high school.”

“They still think that graduating with a traditional university degree is the path toward achieving the American dream,” Griscom concurred. “But that’s an old paradigm that doesn’t align with the nation’s new economy and it’s a system that just doesn’t work anymore.”

Graduation rates from a four-year degree — and actually finding a job in that field — “are abysmal,” added Jones.

“That is why the positions most needing qualified and skilled employees are those industries that may not require the standard four-year education, but rather a mix of training, certifications or shorter programs,” she said. “Industries like healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, construction and technology, all fit this category.”

The demand for workers in such fields span too many occupations to name, said Shannon Munro, vice president for workforce development at Pennsylvania College of Technology (Penn College), where she said the top academic programs are: nursing, information technology, welding, management, electrical, building construction, automotive, engineering and industrial design technology, dental hygiene, and automated manufacturing and machining.

“We also offer highly sought-after graduates from our plastics, concrete science and mechatronics programs,” Munro said.

Penn College has built relationships with companies that operate across the state, as well as nationally and internationally, and Munro said that college administrators have heard “a resounding theme echoing around the skills gap and the challenge it places on many industries’ ability to stay competitive.”

To meet the challenge, Penn College has impacted the skills gap in several ways, said Munro, including by graduating “a highly prepared and ready-to-hit-the-ground-running workforce” with the skills needed to thrive in such high-demand career fields.

Additionally, Penn College’s Workforce Development Office addresses the ongoing need for customized training for existing employees, who continue to seek skill upgrades throughout their lifetime in the workforce, Munro said.

Likewise, The Challenge Program (TCP), a Johnstown, Pa.-based program since 2003, is making strides toward meeting Pennsylvania’s workforce development needs throughout the state by raising awareness among the next workforce population — high school students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, said Jones.

TCP’s mission is to build sustainable business and education partnerships that introduce students to local careers in their communities. TCP carries out this mission through in-school assemblies, coordinated career readiness and workforce development activities, and via cash incentives for attendance, community service, STEM activities, academic excellence and academic improvement, Jones explained recently.

“Essentially, businesses can play a role in developing their future workforce and connecting with them while they sit in today’s classrooms,” Jones said, noting that TCP partners with local businesses and more than 110 Pennsylvania schools to implement its unique brand of workforce education and regional career awareness.

TCP in September 2018 opened its first satellite office in downtown Pittsburgh when Jones said the workforce shortage began affecting the communities where TCP operates.

“We knew that our partnerships could work strategically to help improve workforce development in Pennsylvania,” she wrote in an email. “The businesses taking an interest in our program were the high-growth industries with opportunities for students after high school that may not require the traditional four-year degrees.”

Since taking a more focused approach at servicing the hiring needs of its local business partners, TCP partnerships have created “40 and counting” career and summer or part-time job/internship opportunities for students right out of high school, added Jones.

Meanwhile, Penn College recently held an on-campus Career Fair with 470 employers looking to fill more than 5,000 open positions, according to Munro.

“In addition to assisting companies in filling open positions, a path for employees to be lifelong learners is necessary for companies to keep up with the fast-paced changes taking place across all industries,” Munro said.

And in order to address such a specific workforce development need, Penn College is sponsoring apprenticeship programs that continue to grow in popularity, according to Munro.

“We work directly with companies to deliver related technical instruction for Computer Numerical Control, Mechatronics, Infrastructure Maintenance Technician, and Industrial Manufacturing Technician,” she said. “These programs span 18 months to four years and they are helping companies improve the skills of their current workforce.”

Griscom said Stevens College of Technology offers two-year degrees in 23 programs, many of which are the same fields mentioned and include others like building trades, computer science, business and healthcare. He said the college places almost 100 percent of its students in a job upon graduation.

In fact, many university graduates with four-year degrees from other places come to Stevens College of Technology to get a degree and an immediate job offer that will them help pay off their student loan debt for earning that four-year degree, he said.

“There are 8 to 10 job offers for every one of our graduates,” Griscom said. “Employers inundate this place. It’s transformational for our graduates and for our state.”

Jones, Munro and Griscom all agreed that if workforce development needs are left unresolved in Pennsylvania, then there would be a detrimental impact on residents’ daily lives.

“Systems that we rely on the most in our day-to-day lives will struggle to fulfill the needs of their communities,” said Jones.

That’s because manufacturing companies literally create the pieces that build the existing world, the sources said.

“Manufacturing drives the economy,” Griscom said. “It’s the reason we have jobs in the service industry, for instance. Without it, we’d have nothing in that sector.”

All employment sectors are touched by the issue of skilled-labor shortages, Munro said, adding that “the immediate and long-term impact [for the state] is an inability to compete effectively in the marketplace.”

“The United States is facing an unprecedented low unemployment rate. That, coupled with the retirements of baby boomers, is creating a tremendous need for skilled workers in virtually all fields,” Munro explained. “Particularly hard hit are the manufacturing and health care sectors.”

In healthcare, for example, Jones said that an aging population and the growing need in the nursing industry would leave individuals unable to find quality affordable care.

Although many people might think of nursing as it relates to skill shortages in health care, Munro noted that “there are a number of other occupations that are in demand, including health information specialists, occupational therapists, physician assistants, radiographers and surgical technologists.”

“Along those same lines, as manufacturing becomes more advanced and technologically based, a lack of individuals able to service and create automated technologies will also be a set-back for PA’s advancement,” Jones said. “With a growing need in the construction trades, our roadways, infrastructures and development will also halt.”

The transportation industry — auto and diesel mechanical and trucking — also could suffer, she said.

“Manufacturing is not dead,” said Griscom. “It is alive and well and needs skilled employees.”