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Education key to growth, Westmoreland County economic development official says

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

Workforce developers need to work with school districts to create a pool of employees with the skills to meet the growing demands of manufacturing jobs, a Westmoreland County economic development official said on Wednesday.

“We need to take a whole new approach to workforce development. Without integrating K (kindergarten) through 12 ... we won't come to a workforce solution,” said James Smith, president of the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland.

More than 225 business, government and community leaders attended the Greensburg-based organization's annual membership meeting at St. Vincent College in Unity.

To learn what manufacturers need, the Economic Growth Connection has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg's Center for Applied Research to survey manufacturers in the county to determine “their true worker needs,” including the existing workforce and future needs, Smith said.

“We need the viewpoint of the manufacturer ... because if we can't supply them with a qualified workforce, they will leave,” Smith said.

The survey is being distributed to employers, and the organization hopes to have results within six weeks, Smith said. The Economic Growth Connection has a database of 500 companies in the county.

After the results are compiled, Smith wants to hold a “workforce education summit” in April or May with school district superintendents, career and technology center directors, guidance counselors, workforce development agencies, business and political leaders, Westmoreland County Community College near Youngwood and all other higher education institutions.

“We can begin the process of evaluating our workforce needs. ... The idea would be to lay out the issues that exist with the looming workforce crisis, and to put strategies in place to begin to address the crisis,” Smith said.

A workforce education summit “is an excellent idea,” community college President Daniel Obara said after the event.

“We need to encourage more students to pursue technology education and to create pathways from the high schools and career and technology centers to the community college and other higher education institutions,” he said.

To train students for advanced manufacturing jobs, WCCC plans to open a 72,000-square-foot Advanced Technology Center this summer at the former Sony Technology Center in East Huntingdon. The technology center will have an expanded technology component, said Patrick Gerity, WCCC vice president for continuing education, workforce and community development.

The success of the technology center will require the right training programs; effective marketing to students, parents, teachers and guidance counselors; and support from companies to ensure that students who complete the program can get jobs to begin meaningful, substantial careers, Smith said.

For several years, the community college's program for training workers in the region's booming natural gas exploration and production industry has grown beyond training for drilling-related jobs into other aspects of the industry, Gerity said.

The Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in Derry Township is developing a pilot program with the Derry Area School District that will place students on a career path in manufacturing as early as the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, said Marie Bowers, administrative assistant. The Pathways Innovation Network, which will involve job shadowing by students and school visits by company representatives, will begin in the 2014-15 school year, Bowers said.

“I think it is the way to go,” said Bowers, noting that high school graduates will be able to earn eight college credits from WCCC and a certificate in applied industrial technology.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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