The same message comes through with every new stop on the tour.
“We keep hearing ‘We need more,’” said Jerry Oleksiak, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. “We need more carpenters, more welders, more precision machinists.”
Since taking the job 18 months ago, the former teacher has traveled the state, visiting career and technical schools, apprenticeship programs and business/industry partnerships.
Early on as secretary, he served on a Middle Class Task Force organized by Gov. Tom Wolf that gathered input from employers and workers across Pennsylvania.
“We heard it everywhere,” Oleksiak said. “There is a skills gap. There is a shortage. It has been the focus of the governor to create the workforce that we need.”
Oleksiak received plenty of feedback Wednesday when he visited the Cumberland Perry Area Vocational Technical School in Silver Spring Township. While there, he chatted with students and instructors in the welding, carpentry, diesel technology, precision machine technology and horticulture/landscaping labs.
Part of his mission was to highlight the governor’s plan to help workers get the training they need to compete for in-demand jobs. That plan includes a proposal for $10 million more in state funds to build upon the PAsmart initiative the Wolf administration launched last year.
That initiative provided nearly $30 million in grants to expand job training and apprenticeship programs and to bolster instruction in schools in computer science and careers related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM.
Lesli Shuman, principal of the technical school, sees the proposal as a sign that society and state government have turned a corner in their support of workforce development in the trades and technical fields.
“For my generation, there was a significant push for college,” Shuman said, adding there was also a stigma attached to vo-tech.
While the push for college has resulted in heavy student debt and too many graduates for too few jobs, the opposite is true of technical schools across the nation coping with industry demand for young talent to fill the skills gap as the current workforce ages and retires.
“We are ecstatic about this proposal because we feel we are the best deal in public education,” Shuman said. “To have attention and support now from state government is just amazing.
“Our kids come here half a day from their high school,” she said. “They are in one of our technical programs for three years. They leave with college credit and industry certificates. Many of them leave here with full-time employment and credits to go into continuing education. It’s a free high school education.”
Not only are the vo-tech’s graduates coming out with good jobs and benefit packages, many students choose a co-op as the capstone of their training at the school, Shuman said. This gives them both high school credit and a paycheck that rolls into employment.
State Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Carlisle, accompanied Oleksiak on his tour of CPAVTS Wednesday. She supports what Wolf is doing on workforce development.
“We have such a need in our state right now,” Gleim said. “We have so many resources in Pennsylvania that I feel are being under-utilized. We have so many job openings.”
Like the secretary, she has gone on workforce development tours where companies have advised her they need more skilled workers to fill vacant positions.
“It’s not just five or 10,” Gleim said. “They are telling me ‘I need 100 employees.’”
Recently Wolf created the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center. The hope is that this partnership of state government and private sector leaders will help to address the skills gap and worker shortages.
“It’s taking a step back and seeing what we need to do,” Oleksiak said. “What are the barriers that are keeping people from getting into the workforce? What kind of infrastructure do we need in terms of transportation, health care and child care?”
He said the command center will also focus on where state government could redirect funding and what legislative changes may be needed to improve workforce development.