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At new apprenticeship center, Pa. labor secretary promises more training dollars

Kenneth Broadbent led his visitor through nearly all of the 75,000 square feet of the training “mega-center” built amid rolling farmland in Harmony, Butler County.

Classrooms connected to laboratory spaces. Sparks flew in some of the 66 welding booths protected by an orange curtain of tinted plastic. Students checked the tension of a motor belt.

Industry has donated equipment — rooftop HVAC systems from malls, refrigeration units from grocers, valves and industrial controls from pipelines — and vendors have rented office space: Lincoln Electric, Mathey Dearman, E.H. Wachs and Hytorc.

“We’re the American dream!” exclaimed Mr. Broadbent, business manager for the Steamfitters Local Union 449.

His enthusiasm reached the sympathetic ear of Jerry Oleksiak, recently installed secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

“You’re preaching to the choir,” Mr. Oleksiak replied on more than one occasion during the tour.

The Steamfitters Local 449’s Technology Center, which cost $18.5 million to build, is a new addition to the 16 apprenticeship centers in Western Pennsylvania vying for applicants as the construction industry contends with a regional building boom.

Apprenticeships — an arrangement by which an employer pays workers a salary as they take training courses in addition to working shifts — has become a buzzword for workforce officials hoping to connect job seekers with jobs amid a sea change in skills.

While the construction industry is seen as the gold standard for the model, the sudden demand for workers has put the unions in a bit of a crunch, Mr. Broadbent told the secretary.

A partnership between companies and unions spends millions each year to train workers — including steamfitters, carpenters, operating engineers, iron workers and electricians — at 16 joint apprenticeship training centers. For example, the Steamfitters Local 449 union workers pay into a pot of money — about a dollar each hour worked by each — to fund a $2.7 million annual budget for training.

It’s a big upfront cost for the union to invest in training. Nearly 400 apprentices currently train at the center, supplementing about 1,800 active steamfitters in Local 449 across 15 counties in the region, Mr. Broadbent said.

“When you’re able to get training dollars, it helps supplement what we’re doing,” Mr. Broadbent said. “And with all the work at the Shell cracker and everything else happening with commercial [construction], we’re going to have to bring in three to four times more apprentices.”

Shell’s ethane cracker plant, currently under construction in Beaver County, will require 1,500 steamfitters alone, Mr. Broadbent said. New hospitals planned by UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, as well as new apartment and office buildings, will call for more qualified workers, he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed $7 million to help companies fund apprenticeships, and he has a goal of doubling the number of apprentices in the state to 30,000 workers, Mr. Oleksiak said. That budget must be approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

In 2016, the department launched its Apprenticeship and Training Office, helping start nearly 100 new apprenticeship programs with nearly 3,000 new apprentices statewide.

“The governor is committed to creating the middle class jobs for the 21st century that you see here,” Mr. Oleksiak said.

For Mr. Oleksiak, who was nominated last year by Mr. Wolf from his post at the Pennsylvania State Education Association, more funding for apprenticeships could also be an opportunity to get some traction with Republican state lawmakers on labor policy.

The state Senate declined to vote to confirm Mr. Oleksiak after lawmakers raised questions about his competency for the job — an almost unprecedented move. After a period of time, he was confirmed as secretary without the Senate’s approval.

Mr. Oleksiak is making his way through Western Pennsylvania this week. On Wednesday, the secretary is scheduled to visit the Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 12 Technology Center in Harmar. He is then due to give a speech to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention in Downtown.

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