State officials, businesses discuss workforce development

Rick Shrum
Observer Reporter

Chris Hutchins, a shy teenager with a quick smile and mop of green hair, attended the opening minutes of a roundtable discussion about workforce development. Then he quietly excused himself to get back to work.

A recent graduate of Washington High School, Hutchins is a full-time employee at AUMA Actuators, one of the few manufacturers operating in Southpointe. He completed an apprenticeship program his senior year that prepared him for a career at the plant, which makes multiple sizes of actuators, a device that enables a valve to open and close.

Although he did not stay long, Hutchins had an impact on the proceedings Tuesday afternoon at AUMA – beyond his endearing exit. He exemplified much of what was discussed.

An eclectic mix of state officials, local business representatives, workforce development leaders and elected officials participated in an hourlong discussion centering on youths, jobs, apprenticeship programs, funding for training and related matters. The goal is to alleviate a severe shortage of skilled workers that has been projected for this region over the next five to seven years, at a time when manufacturing jobs are on the rise along with an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County.

Ami Gatts, director of the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, was an organizer of the event, which included an illuminating 45-minute tour of AUMA’s production facility. Her board serves Washington, Greene and Beaver counties.

Jerry Oleksiak, secretary of the state Department of Labor & Industry, and Eileen Cipriani, deputy secretary for Pennsylvania Workforce Development, were in from Harrisburg to moderate the session.

Much of it focused on apprenticeship programs, similar to the one Chris Hutchins undertook. A Wash High guidance counselor last fall advised him of the German American Chamber Apprenticeship Program, which enabled the young man to complete his secondary education while being trained in a work environment. He worked at AUMA two hours a week, took courses two hours a day on Skype and earned a certificate before accepting his high school diploma.

Hutchins started working full time last month.

A large number of students at or near the end of a secondary education not only are unsure of careers they may want to pursue, they are unaware of resources, programs and opportunities that may guide them.

College is an option, of course, but not everyone is interested in tackling a four-year degree program, especially with the large debt and uncertainty of viable employment that could entail. And many, quite simply, are more comfortable working with their hands.

Panelists acknowledged all of this, stressing officials, agencies and business leaders must communicate better with students and their parents, increasing awareness of their options. Some pointed out that many parents today grew up at a time when a college education was considered paramount, but that is not the case anymore.

“Apprenticeship is a major focus,” Gatts said. “We have to get high school students interested and come to see what is available.”

An active speaker, Cipriani is a staunch proponent of apprenticeship programs. And while she said there are programs for “a wide range of jobs, not just one thing,” that range has room for expansion.

“There is nothing we’re not looking at in an apprenticeship program,” Cipriani said. “Students need to know what opportunities they may have.”

Funding is a key element that comes from different sources. Panelist Jim Denova represented the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which funds educational programs, among other initiatives. Oleksiak, the fairly new Labor & Industry leader, talked about PAsmart, a $30 million job training and workforce initiative that provides funding for apprenticeship programs, STEM education and computer science, among other areas.

Oleksiak also spoke about the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides services to help people with disabilities prepare for, get or maintain employment. He lamented that Pennsylvania residents with disabilities have an unemployment rate over 30 percent.

“That’s an untapped tool (for employers),” he said.

Some local companies that were represented Tuesday are involved in apprenticeship programs. Mary Stollar, director of business investment for the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, commended them for “welcoming students into their facilities, to see what their operation is all about.”

Then, in a serious-but-not-stern fashion, she offered a challenge:

“I’d like to throw it out to more businesses to bring young people into your facilities and show them what you’re all about.”