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Westmoreland County manufacturers share employment challenges

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Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Local business and education leaders look over the new technology in the mechatronics program while touring The Advanced Technology Center operated by Westmoreland County Community College. School administrators, business representatives and college leaders gathered to talk about the kinds of workforce jobs are in demand and how schools and colleges can meet those needs.
gtrworkforce2111414
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
WCCC president Dr. Tuesday Stanley (left) speaks during a panel discussion as Ed Wagner, Regional Director, Catalyst Connection listens her comments on Nov. 13, 2014 at the The Advanced Technology Center. Local superintendents, business officials and community college leaders gathered to talk about the kinds of workforce jobs that are needed for businesses today as well as how schools and colleges can meet those needs.

Westmoreland County manufacturers need more students with industrial technology skills, not four-year college degrees, and they hope the attitude about technical education shifts so it no longer carries a stigma, company representatives said Thursday.

During a panel discussion between manufacturers and school officials at Westmoreland County Community College’s new Advanced Technology Center, the head of human resources for the Elliott Group said the company has hired nearly 400 workers in the past three to four years.

“Technical engineers? We can find those,” said Brian Lapp, a vice president at the Jeannette-based turbo-machinery maker. “It’s the skilled trades we can’t find. Machining, welding … and the maintenance crafts — they are a dying breed.”

Lapp said part of the problem is that schools and companies don’t always do a good job of showing students what manufacturing is today. Unlike the 1960s, when “you hired someone to run a machine and that’s all they did,” today’s operators have taken on broader, more educated roles.

“These people need to know how to apply engineering drawings to a part,” Lapp said. “It’s good to have some technical skills, but we’re also looking for some critical reasoning skills.”

Smaller companies face the same challenges, said Ed Wagner, regional director at Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh-based consultant for small manufacturers.

One of the biggest needs of manufacturing executives are people with industrial technology skills. Career and technology centers, formerly known as vo-tech schools, and the stackable credentials option at WCCC are helping to bridge the gap, Wagner said.

WCCC offers a variety of certificates that students can earn and enter the workforce or continue and “stack” additional certifications on their way to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The other problem is one of perception, said Jeff Kelly, chief executive at Hamill Manufacturing, a precision machining, welding and fabrication plant in Trafford.

“I know for a fact that most guidance counselors will say to a young, dynamic, smart kid, ‘You don’t want to go to the CTC,’ ” Kelly said. “That’s pejorative.”

Kelly said technical program graduates typically have enough skills that the rest can be taught on site, but there aren’t enough students graduating from those schools to fill all the jobs available.

Jason Rigone, director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp., said he often hears parents and school officials worry that students are training for a job, not a career, by focusing on a skilled trade.

But Lapp said Elliott Group is always looking to promote from within and that the company will pay for up to 75 percent of the costs of further education if workers want to advance.

“There are so many jobs where you can get a family-wage income, and you don’t have to go the route of a four-year degree,” said WCCC President Tuesday Stanley. “That’s the message we want to start delivering to our youth.”

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or [email protected].

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