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Grant will be targeting skilled-worker gap

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
John Thornton, 27, President of Astrobotic Technology Inc., shows Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis his company's lunar rover during her visit to Carnegie Mellon University on Thursday. Sec. Solis visited the university to announce nearly $147 million in new grants to develop and expand innovative strategies to help Americans return to work.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012, 10:04 p.m.

The founders of a small startup company that designs and makes fuel systems for diesel engines that run on biofuels say their company will be a leader in the sustainable-energy movement.

As Garfield-based Optimus Technologies Inc. grows, it will need more workers with advanced skills to build the systems. And it will need mechanics at equipment companies who can maintain them, said CEO Colin Huwyler.

"The ideal scenario ... is to develop and keep the jobs here," he said.

The Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board of Pittsburgh plans to use a $3 million federal grant to partner with the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, Carnegie Mellon University and startup companies to close the gap between the number of job openings in technology fields -- particularly manufacturing -- and the number of people with the skills necessary for those jobs.

On Thursday at CMU, Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced the award -- one of 26 grants totaling $147 million given nationwide, mostly to state and local workforce agencies to improve training.

West Central Job Partnership Inc. in New Castle received a $6 million grant. The agency's chief executive could not be reached for comment.

Three Rivers Workforce board President Joseph Belechak cited a study showing that although 100,000 people were unemployed in Western Pennsylvania in 2010, there were 40,000 job openings.

The agency is trying to determine why that gap exists but suggests it is linked to a mismatch of skills available and skills needed in technology fields.

The Three Rivers Workforce grant will be used for a joint apprenticeship training program, called Making It in America.

The program helps workers receive training to meet the needs of startup companies, said Bernie Lynch, a principal at Uptown-based Strategic Development Solutions, a project manager for Making It in America.

Optimus Technologies tested the apprenticeship program, having partnered with the Western Pennsylvania Operating Engineers. The union is training mechanics to maintain and install technology that has been modified to work on heavy equipment.

The Three Rivers Workforce grant will be used partly for startup boot camps that pair entrepreneurs with experienced, unionized workers who can help business owners use the best practices. The grant also will be used for a Virtual Hiring Hall -- a website that will serve as a job matchmaking tool between employers and employees.

Solis toured CMU's Planetary Robotics Lab, an incubator for start-ups developing new technology.

Optimus Technologies was among 11 startups showcased at the lab, although it didn't start at CMU.

Another startup is Astrobotic Technology Inc., which is developing a lander and rover to fly to the surface of the moon to find ice, said John Thornton, 27, president of the Oakland-based company that grew out of CMU and is partnering with the university on the mission.

Thornton said he expects a growing need for skilled workers at his company as it produces more advanced versions of its technology.

"The more skill there is around town, the more technology there is around town, the better off our company is going to be. It really makes a difference to be able to call somebody up and drive over and check on your parts," said Thornton, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from CMU.

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