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Tech careers put in focus at Imagine! Career Week

| Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Tremaine Wills an ACCEL associate with PNC Bank chats with Rebekah Sharpe (left) a zone manager with Ford Motor Company Monday April 22, 2013 following the Imagine! Career Week Breakfast Forum at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Keynote speaker Bruce Niemeyer, a vice president with Chevron delivers his address Monday April 22, 2013 at the Imagine! Career Week Breakfast Forum at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Keynote speaker Bruce Niemeyer, a vice president with Chevron delivers his address Monday April 22, 2013 at the Imagine! Career Week Breakfast Forum at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Mark Latterner (left) with Citizens Bank, Joe Belechak (center) with dck Worldwide and Bruce Niemeyer, a vice president with Chevron participate in an open forum Monday April 22, 2013 at the Imagine! Career Week Breakfast Forum at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side.

Before her five-year internship at NASA in Langley, Va., in 2006, Tremaine Wills, 24, believed everyone at the agency was an astronaut.

“But I learned there's many pieces to every industry, and science and technology are needed everywhere,” said Wills, now fully employed and living Downtown.

Such exposure to science and technology — and the solid employment that usually follows — is the focus of Imagine! Career Week, which began Monday at the Carnegie Science Center.

Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board opened its seventh annual event at the science center for the first time, in order to emphasize the importance of job preparation in science, technology, engineering and math — or “STEM,” as some call it.

“We wanted to get the STEM message out,” said board CEO Stefani Pashman, who expects about 4,000 to attend events this week around Pittsburgh.

Career week events, which feature more than a dozen work shops and forums, are aimed at exposing young people to good-paying high-tech job opportunities in this region and elsewhere which often require training after high school but not four-year university degrees.

Young people could use a career boost these days. While national unemployment in March was 7.6 percent, the rate of those age 20 to 24 was nearly double, at 13.2 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

At the same time, of the 20 fastest-growing jobs in the United States next year, 15 require a math and science background, said Bruce Neimeyer, vice president of Chevron North America's Appalachian/Michigan Strategic Business Unit.

“The fundamental issue is to get students to see themselves in these roles,” said Neimeyer, who was the keynote speaker. His Chevron unit is responsible for Marcellus shale natural gas development.

Many of the jobs in the energy industry, including shale gas, are high-tech jobs, said Neimeyer. For instance, information technologists are needed on oil and gas drilling projects to extract and interpret huge volumes of drilling data. Other examples include highly trained engineers that are necessary to control the 13,000 valves in a typical Chevron oil refinery, he said.

“Students don't even consider high-tech manufacturing as a career option. So we have to garner their interest and address the skills gap,” said Scott Dietz, manager of workforce initiatives at Catalyst Connection, a nonprofit in South Oakland that provides work place resources for area manufacturers.

Catalyst Connection, for instance, for the last six years has been recruiting young aspiring engineers for four- to six-month internships at area manufacturers. A similar program, which targets Community College of Allegheny County students on Pittsburgh Promise scholarships, drew five interns its first year in 2012, but 20 interns this year.

Wills, for instance, discovered an interest in the funding aspects of the agency's extensive research capabilities. Her aptitude for math and business led her to a job as a finance associate at PNC Bank, Downtown.

“Seeing all the project financing at NASA was so important,” Wills said. “That's what got me interested in finance.”

Matching Western Pennsylvania workers' technical skills to job qualifications for open positions in the region is “mission critical” for employers but also a huge challenge for them, Dietz said.

“We hear daily from manufacturing companies about the challenges they're facing in hiring right now,” Dietz said.

Other technical industry segments are challenged as well. The construction company dck worldwide, based Downtown, has half as many “people in the pipeline” it will need to replace those who will be retiring, said Chief Operating Officer Joe Belechak, who also is president of Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board.

Pittsburgh Technical Institute is another local group bent on filling the skills gap. Next fall, Oakdale-based PTI begins a 12-month certificate program on welding technology. Tuition is $15,000, and 65 already are enrolled.

“Marcellus shale was a big influence in our decision to offer this program because that industry employs a lot of welders,” said PTI President Greg DeFeo, noting the jobs pay more than $20 an hour.

“The welders currently working are an older population and there's a lot of welders retiring,” DeFeo said. “You have all the demand created by Marcellus shale too.”

PTI is tailoring part of its 50-year-old electronics-technician degree program to suit the region's shale gas industry. The 21-month, associates degree program was developed in concert with a dozen Marcellus shale-related firms based in Washington County. Tuition is $40,000, and 50 students are enrolled.

“This was clearly driven by the Marcellus and Utica shale industry,” said Dave Becker, who chairs PTI's electronics department. “And these are high-paying jobs, clearly more than $40,000.”

Thomas Olson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached a 412-320-7854 or at tolson@tribweb.com.

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