Local educators and business leaders gathered this month to discuss workforce development strategies, in anticipation of school survey this month regarding skilled trade jobs.
That survey will seek to gather data on attitudes toward skilled trades and the perception of the county’s job market, with the goal of improving Cumberland County’s base of technically skilled workers amidst a changing economy.
The survey will be distributed to students, teachers and parents in the fifth, seventh, and 11th grade levels at Cumberland Valley, West Shore and Carlisle Area School Districts, as well as the Carlisle Center for Careers and Technology and the Cumberland-Perry Area Vocational-Technical School.
“The main idea is asking ‘what do [respondents] consider a good-paying job? What do they consider a good career,’” said Laura Potthoff, CAEDC business and workforce development manager.
The study will help identify if a stigma still exists toward high-performing students going into the trades, as opposed to a college education path, despite the declining wage advantage of a college education.
Results of the study will help local business and education leaders develop skilled trades curriculum, particularly focused on health care, advanced manufacturing and heavy equipment operation and maintenance — the three employment areas where Cumberland County has the biggest labor deficit, Potthoff said.
“We’re looking to build a technical curriculum that is equally as valuable if you’re going to work right out of high school as it is if you’re going on to college to be a civil engineer or architect,” said Fred Withum, Superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District, during a roundtable session on the topic.
Cumberland Valley School District is working in tandem with Cumberland-Perry Vo-Tech and Harrisburg Area Community College to create a pipeline for students interested in the skilled trades – a curriculum that will allow them to progress to anything from a four-year college degree to an apprenticeship with a local business.
Withum relayed a particular concern with CV students who see traditional four-year colleges as the only career path – only to decide it isn’t for them, and leave after a year or two.
A modernized curriculum, Withum said, will give students college prep opportunities as well as technical certifications.
“If those students decide college isn’t for them, they will come back with marketable skills and not just college prep courses,” Withum said.
CV High School has begun offering a program that gives students entry-level qualifications for heavy equipment and manufacturing work, such as vehicle flagging, electrical code, and forklift certifications. The program uses summer courses to ensure that students also get a full schedule of English, Social Studies, and other college-prep materials as well, giving them several options on graduation.
What educators would like to see are greater apprenticeship opportunities for students with local industrial outfits.
“Gradually, we want to start handing these students off to real-world experience, and that’s where we need your assistance,” Justin Bruhn, Administrative Director for Cumberland-Perry Vo-Tech, said to business representatives during this month’s meeting.
HACC, as well, is offering a 66-hour pre-apprenticeship course for community college students interested in heavy equipment operation and maintenance.
“We’d like to take this and offer it not just to high school students, but also to adults who are looking to enter your industries,” said Lauren Holubec, Director of Manufacturing and Logistics at HACC.
The number of paid apprenticeships or internships available to students of the skilled trades is still not at the level that could be supported, if businesses were willing to take on the responsibility.
“Paid internships, while initially a little painful, are going to put you in contact with the people you need,” said Vic Rodgers, Associate Provost for Workforce Development at HACC. “We can’t stand back and say ‘someone else will do this,’ because they won’t.”
Cumberland County, perhaps even more than the rest of the country, has struggled with a lack of skilled labor as demand for workers has grown.
Like most of the nation, the county has seen steady growth in its total jobs since 2011, with 2016 private-sector employment averaging over 116,000, as opposed to just over 103,000 at the trough of the recession in 2010. Cumberland County’s unemployment rate has also dropped from 6.8 percent at the height of the recession to 4.1 percent in 2016.
But at the same time, businesses have complained about a chronic shortage of skilled labor, even as they have increased wages for such positions relative to other jobs.
A Brookings Institution study, looking at wage data from 2010-15, found that the Harrisburg-Carlisle metro census region had one of the most economically divergent outcomes during the recession and recovery. Average pay per worker increased 5.9 percent in the Harrisburg-Carlisle region from 2010-2015, Brookings found. But median wages dropped 1.6 percent, and the number of Midstate residents earning less than half that median grew 5.3. percent, indicating that new jobs or workers added during the five year span were disproportionately on the low end of the pay scale.
Census data also shows that high school grads in the Midstate saw median wages decline 3 percent since the recession, and college grads lost 2.5 percent. Those with associates or technical education, however, saw median wage gains of 2.2 percent.