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Help Wanted | Educators retool programs toward workforce needs

For Pennsylvania’s institutions of higher learning, the mission is clear.

Their job is not simply to educate students; it is to prepare them to enter a workforce that increasingly is demanding higher levels of learning to fill the jobs available.

The Center for Workforce Information and Analysis of the state Department of Labor Industry has prepared a list of “high priority occupations” for 2018. The center divided the state into 22 regions, and in 17 of them, at least seven of the top 10 occupations require an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree.

In 16 of those 22 areas, though, the job ranked highest in priority also pays less than $60,000 a year, in a state that was ranked No. 3 in the nation for highest student debt in a 2017 WalletHub report.

Westminster College in New Wilmington has prided itself on providing a liberal arts education since 1852. In recent years, though, the college has gone from a focus on liberal arts to developing more career-specific majors in areas, including business and nursing, according to Dr. Jeffrey S. Coker, vice president for academic affairs.

"Our goal is to impart transferable skills that allow students to be nimble," Coker said. "This will make them more valuable and more employable in the job market.”

Curriculum changes have included the addition of such majors as registered nursing, as well as an entrepreneur program and an entrepreneurship lab.

'Meet industry demand'

With six campuses sprinkled throughout western Pennsylvania, Butler County Community College looks to attract students of all ages, not just high school seniors.

"Our students are 18 to 80,” said Lisa Campbell, Interim Director of Workforce Development. "The average age of people coming to us seeking new employment skills is 40 to 50. We strive to provide all with a quality education to prepare them to go into the world.”

The school’s workforce development team includes certificate programs in welding, auto technician, personal care home administrator, manufacturing pre-apprenticeship, human resource management, certified personal trainer and food safety. New programs in patient care technology and a prep CDL – commercial driver's license – will be offered this fall.

Likewise, students at Laurel Technical Institute in Hermitage can range from 18 to 50, with a variety of backgrounds. The school’s top three programs, enrollment-wise, are IT, business and cosmetology, but Executive Director Douglas Decker said a retiring workforce and a previous push for students to enter college after high school has led to an "overwhelming" demand for skilled trades, including machine operators, electricians or maintenance technicians.

This summer, LTI will host its third annual Summer Welding Academy, during which high school students can spend three hours a day for eight weeks learning the welding trade.

"We have more job offers than graduates," Decker said. "Our programs are all in-demand. If they're not, then we'll put them on the shelf."

Greater Johnstown Career and Technology used a $300,000 state grant to launch satellite welding programs at Somerset and Bedford this spring. The state funding will cover the tuition costs for 65 future welders at the two sites combined.

“These are two brand new programs, designed to meet industry demand,” Administrative Director John Augustine said.

Dubbed “Learn Where You Earn,” the initiative will put adult students in job settings – exposing them to the sights and sounds of a manufacturing facility while under the guidance and direction of a school instructor, Augustine added.

Shifting priorities

Education aimed toward specific careers, though, doesn’t always wait until students are out of high school.

Tami Adams, executive director of Northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association, said her group is doing outreach to attract new workers, including a new fact sheet being sent to school administrators, superintendents and political leaders.

The group also does different types of outreach, including a RoboBOTS student robot building competition which plants the seeds for tooling and machining jobs.

Adams goes into schools each September and May to speak with middle school and high school students about careers.

In New Castle, a community School to Work Program sponsored by Pennsylvania CareerLink aims to get teens interested in exploring career paths well before graduation. The endeavor includes one annual career fair focusing on business and industry and another on health care; a program aimed at ninth-grade girls to introduce them to women in nontraditional careers; and Engineering Day for 11th and 12th grades hosted by a local special steel maker.

“The whole thought has been that you have to go to college, and that’s maybe not the case right now,” director Linda Rapone said. “People who are coming out with a four-year degree are having a hard time finding a job, so they’re taking jobs and being kind of underemployed so that they’re at least working. Then you have the other side where you have the skilled workers with the technical or certification, and they’re the golden type of workers that places are looking for.

“Not everybody is cut out to go to college. So instead of thinking, ‘Gee, what college should I go to,’ it should be, ‘what career should I go into, and what skills are needed for that career,’ and that gets you more focused.”

'Eager to be hired'

Across an 11-county swathe of central Pennsylvania, the Associated Builders and Contractors' Keystone Chapter launched "Construction Wars" in 2017 – an introduction to the trades that engaged 7th and 8th graders by allowing them to explore building careers through hands-on activities.

"The challenge has been getting the message out there to reach today's young people, so we're going into middle schools and delivering it to them," David Sload, the Keystone Chapter's president. ‘We know we're getting them excited – but will it work in the long-term, we don't know. What we do know is that if we don't try something new, we're pretty much guaranteed not to reach them.”

Connecting bright young leaders of tomorrow with the employment opportunities of today is the goal of the new "College Connector " initiative of the eCenter at Linden Pointe, a non-profit development corporation, based in Hermitage.

The center is committed to fostering collaboration between the region's business leaders, who are looking for great young talent, and the region's college and university leaders, whose schools are helping to shape the minds and career aspirations of thousands of young adults every year.

"The eCenter's mission gives us an ideal chance to be the catalyst that pulls together the employers eager to hire, and the graduates eager to be hired," says Frank Mindicino, eCenter Development Corporation board member who is spearheading this College Connector initiative.

In April, the College Connector program held the first of what will become a series of activities. The featured employer, UPMC, brought about a dozen of its college-recruitment specialists to an "All Access Day" event at the eCenter to meet and discuss employment opportunities with more than 50 college students and recent graduates from Penn State Shenango, Grove City, Westminster, Thiel and Allegheny colleges.

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