OPED: Wolf: Build on apprenticeships, skills training and STEM progress

Gov. Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania’s economy is growing and setting records, recently passing more than 6 million jobs for the first time in our history. All of us working together makes the commonwealth the 14th largest economy in the world.

But the global marketplace is extremely competitive. To attract businesses to grow and expand here, we need more talented workers, and we must prepare now.

Recently, I brought together labor and business leaders, who along with educators, traveled the state, listening to employers, workers and job trainers.

Governor Tom Wolf talks with Ferguson K-8 fourth-graders  including Ashawn Creque during a STEAM class Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes, background, joined the governor. Wolf visited the school as part of his Schools That Teach tour. Bill Kalina photo

We heard a clear message: Businesses are looking to expand but cannot find skilled workers, and workers want more training to improve their skills. After restoring education funding over the past three years, it’s time to build on that success by investing in our workforce.

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The numbers tell the story. Over the next decade, most good-paying jobs in Pennsylvania will require some form of education or training after high school, especially in fast-growing science, engineering, math and technology and computer science fields. But college isn’t for everyone, and a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.

Recognizing this reality, I set a goal to increase the percentage of Pennsylvanians with an industry-recognized certificate or degree to 60 percent by 2025, up from 47 percent today.  

To meet that demand, as part of next year’s state budget, I proposed PAsmart, a first-of-its-kind $50 million strategic investment in job and workforce training.

From left, Manufacturing Engineering Manager Chris DeStephano, left, discusses how circuit boards are built as he guides John Lloyd, of Mantec in York City, Katie Lentz, of the York County Economic Alliance, Sec. Kathy Manderino and Kim Lentz, also with the York County Economic Alliance, while guiding the group through Red Lion Controls during a stop on Manderino's Jobs That Pay Tour in Manchester Township, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

This investment would close gaps in our existing efforts by offering competitive grants to address local and regional job-training needs. Businesses and schools would be encouraged to partner, with an emphasis on delivering the best results.

PAsmart is a new way of investing to create or expand innovative efforts in STEM, computer science, apprenticeships and more to help people get the skills and education for in-demand, middle-class jobs.

Many of those jobs will use technology. To prepare our children and current workers, PAsmart would invest $25 million in computer science and STEM education at all levels. We’re starting from an advantageous position. Pennsylvania is a national leader in STEM education, with the third most STEM learning ecosystems and fifth most STEM degrees. But it’s a global race, and employers are telling us we must do more.

PAsmart also would expand opportunities in career and technical education for high school students looking to get hands-on experience and industry credentials. The initiative also would target additional investments in schools and, for adults, “boot camps” and other opportunities to update their skills to get a new job or advance their careers.

I’ve also called for a renewed emphasis on apprenticeships. In 2016, my administration launched an initiative to partner with businesses to create more apprenticeships. In two years, we’ve boosted apprentices by nearly one-third, and I’ve challenged our state to double the number of apprentices to 30,000 by 2025.

With apprenticeships, workers earn a paycheck as they learn, and we create a pipeline of skilled people, which employers, especially small businesses, desperately need. PAsmart would invest an additional $7 million in traditional and nontraditional apprenticeships to help more students and workers access this opportunity to gain valuable academic and on-the-job training.

Pennsylvania has a lot to be proud of. Businesses are expanding, the economy is growing, and we’re setting all-time jobs records. But we have unfilled jobs and workers who need new, more advanced training.

PAsmart is an opportunity to invest in working families and their future, and I’m pleased many businesses, educators and workforce development experts support it.

As we negotiate the state budget, the General Assembly should support funding for PAsmart so more people can get the skills and training for good-paying jobs in growing industries and bring more businesses and jobs to Pennsylvania.