Panelists at Penn Twp. meeting stress need for skilled workers

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Though the manufacturing sector experienced modest growth in the Pittsburgh region last year, some companies continue to struggle to find skilled workers, panelists at a state Senate Manufacturing Caucus meeting in Penn Township said last week.

Despite offering an average annual wage of $57,194 to Pittsburgh-area employees, businesses are finding that many manufacturing jobs are plagued by an outdated perception of work in dirty, dangerous factories, some panelists said.

“Today's ‘American Dream' is college education: Doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and so forth,” said Steven Shivak, president of the Churchill-based SMC Business Councils trade association. “Nobody is talking about how great of a career and how wonderful an opportunity you have in the area of manufacturing.”

The meeting, held at Hamill Manufacturing Co., was the second organized this year by the new bipartisan Senate caucus led by Kim Ward, (R-39th), and Wayne Fontana, (D-42nd).

Much of the agenda featured panelists who discussed the potential growth opportunities for manufacturing coming out of the economic downturn. But the topic frequently reverted to the job-force issue.

Hamill President John Dalrymple said his company puts a high value on its partnership with the Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center because the business is struggling to find enough skilled apprentices.

It's one of the reasons Hamill CEO and owner Jeff Kelly established the Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ high school robotics competition, Dalrymple said. It has grown from 17 schools in 2006 to 52 last year.

“Jeff Kelly talks about ‘stealth learning,'” Dalrymple said.

“The students get exposed to manufacturing without realizing what they're being exposed to, so we put a high value on it.”

Industries like 3-D printing will help to make manufacturing “sexy again,” said Irene Petrick, a Penn State professor who works with companies on their technology strategy activities.

She likened an individual's capabilities for creating products with a 3-D printer to the way YouTube ushered in user-generated videos.

“It's not inconceivable that we will have a ‘My Factory,' and it could be on my desk or in my garage,” Petrick said.

With so much of the meeting's focus on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, concept, Norwin Superintendent Bill Kerr said he thinks his district is on the cutting edge of connecting education and workforce quality.

Norwin is in the midst of a feasibility study for a STEM Innovation Center that could operate on a regional basis, he said.

“We, for sure, believe that all students should experience STEM education,” Kerr said. “It should be integrated into the overall curriculum.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671.

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