Local Trade Schools Striving to Fill Shortage of Skilled Workers
Dec 31, 2019 11:31AM
● By Kathleen Ganster
Photo courtesy A.W. Beattie Career Center
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Society needs them to survive, but there is a shortage of skilled workers in the trades, and that shortage could get even worse. With more and more boomers retiring, plus increased industry needs, it is predicted that the shortage could become severe, and not in just one area.
Add to this the fact that college graduates in Pennsylvania have the highest college debt in the country—approximately $36,000 apiece—and careers in the trades are looking very attractive.
“We have local employers coming to us with more job opportunities than we have students enrolled in our programs, and it isn’t in just one area; it is across the board,” explained Eric Heasley, executive director of A.W. Beattie Career Center.
Beattie has served nine northern Allegheny County school districts for more than 50 years. Students attend their regular high schools and then Beattie for half a day, and Heasley said that enrollment has been steadily increasing for the past five years.
Beattie instructors are industry experts who bring real-life experience into the classroom to teach technical and professional skills. “Students are working on skills and hands-on training for what they will potentially be responsible for in the industry,” Heasley said.
Beattie offers various certificate programs on three different levels but also has unique educational partnerships, including dual enrollment programs with CCAC plus a few other local colleges where students earn college credit for courses completed at Beattie. They also have articulation agreements with numerous colleges where students receive between three and 22 credits for coursework and testing completed at Beattie.
There are opportunities available in many trades, but certain areas are booming right now, including careers in automotive trades, HVAC, carpentry/building, food service and the medical field.
Pittsburgh Technical College (PTC) prepares recent high school graduates, young adults and adults going back to college for trade careers. A private, nonprofit, regionally accredited institution of higher education, PTC has been in the Pittsburgh region for more than 70 years and has over 30 programs.
Students decide on careers in the skilled trades for a variety of reasons, according to Rob Rossell, academic chair, School of Trades Technology. “Some students are exposed to the trades through the careers of their parents. Others, including women interested in the trades, are looking for good pay and benefits, longevity in their careers, and a relatively quick turnaround time from school to entry-level positions,” he said.
Many students in the trades have interests that involve working with their hands instead of focusing primarily on theory. AT PTC, students train in state-of-the-industry labs where they learn skills and techniques that they will use in the real world. Internships are also part of the curriculum for all degree-seeking students, which not only allow them to get real-life experience, but enables employers to get a firsthand view of their work. Many students find their first jobs through these internships, according to Rossell.
“There’s another initiative at work, too, which sets the stage for more professional and educational opportunities,” explained Barry Shepard, vice president of marketing and communication at PTC. “Governor Wolf signed Act 76 in October 2019, which establishes provisions that support career and technical education, as well as workforce development in Pennsylvania.”
This new initiative emphasizes the importance of career and technical education in fulfilling workforce readiness, as the state prepares to support, grow, and sustain the tech-enabled economy and its infrastructure, he added.
“The Act sets forth a path for more flexible and relevant career education that is responsive to the workforce needs of our state with a special focus on partnerships and apprenticeships. This initiative places specific focus on career-focused education institutions like PTC,” said Shepard.
PTC offers certificate and associates degree programs with bachelor’s degrees in a few select areas. They also have strong partnerships in the community via matriculation agreements with high schools and several colleges for students who wish to pursue additional education.
“We focus on what the regional economy and employers need, tailor our curriculum, then graduate students who can make an impact in the workplace from day one,” Shepard said.
The Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) has approximately 3,000 students enrolled in their Skilled Trades Programs, according to Ron Logreco, assistant dean, West Hills Center.
“Trade occupations are in high demand, offer excellent career earnings and benefits, with $50,000-$100,000 annually for journeymen and management, with little or no college loan debt,” he said.
CCAC also has real-life labs and its classes are taught by experienced faculty that have worked in the industries in which they teach. “Our students have the opportunity to earn the industry recognized certifications and licenses required in their occupation. We also encourage and facilitate internships and apprenticeships,” Logreco said.
While there are opportunities in many of the trade fields, students may also want to consider careers in Mechatronics Technology or Plastics Manufacturing, two rapidly growing fields, according to Laurel Westrom, CCAC West Hills Center director. Mechatronics is a combination of engineering and computer science skills that prepares students for careers in automation and robotics.
“Students are immediately hired when they complete the program,” said Westrom.
Plastics Manufacturing Technology is a new program with the second cohort starting at the end of January. Students may even be eligible to attend the six-month program free of charge. Plastics manufacturing is the fifth-largest employment sector in Pennsylvania and is rapidly growing, according to Westrom.
“Plastics are used in the manufacture of automotive, transportation, construction and medical products, and in many other industries,” she said. “Students will receive an industry-recognized certification—the MSSC Certified Production Technician credential—and a CCAC certificate in Plastics Manufacturing Technology.”
The program is sponsored through the Department of Community and Economic Development.
Students who complete certificate programs at CCAC can roll their education right into an associate degree program at the college.
CCAC also has numerous matriculation agreements with four-year colleges for those wishing to continue on for a bachelor’s degree.