Westmoreland career center programs cut back skills gap
When a dozen students at Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in New Stanton sat down on Thursday to begin a computer-aided design class, they moved a step closer to earning a college credential — and a job.
The students are in a pilot program with Westmoreland County Community College that enables them to take two advanced college courses and graduate with a certificate in applied industrial technology, along with a high school diploma and the credential from their technology school program.
In the AutoCAD course, students obtain computer blueprinting skills — how to draw, edit and plot two- and three-dimensional plans — needed in fields such as machining, welding and robotics.
The program is part of a growing movement to link community colleges, technology schools and employers so students earn credentials more quickly in high-demand fields.
The idea drew national attention when President Obama called for reforming training programs in his State of the Union address, including “connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs.”
Butler County Community College offers technical classes and some general classes to vo-tech and other high school students, while Community College of Allegheny County offers a dual-enrollment program for high school juniors and seniors.
‘A national crisis'
Career and technology students often have more focused career goals than most high school students, so they view the Westmoreland community college's program as a savings of time and money on the way to a job, said Troy Collier, principal at Central Westmoreland.
“So many times, students and parents are having that conversation: ‘(Should I) get a four-year degree or learn a skill at the community college or get a job?' ” said Doug Jensen, associate vice president for workforce education and economic development at the college.
“We want them to say ... they can get a skill and a degree,” he said.
The nation has more than 500,000 jobs open in manufacturing, but it lacks skilled workers, said Lorrie Paul Crum, vice president for corporate relations at Latrobe-based Kennametal Inc., a supplier of tooling and industrial materials.
“At Kennametal, when we have a production technician position to fill, it takes not weeks — months — to find talent,” said Crum, a board member of WCCC's Educational Foundation.
“With about 2.7 million baby boomers expected to retire from the manufacturing workforce in the next decade, this isn't just a priority, this is like a national crisis. We have to replace that talent,” she said.
The more career and technology centers, vocational schools and community colleges work together to get students trained at a younger age, the better, said Alex Halper, government affairs director for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
The lack of skilled workers shows the need for partnerships between employers and educators to ensure students “are being educated and trained in areas where there will be open positions,” Halper said.
WCCC has accepted some career and technology school classes for credit for a decade, but earning a certificate means students have proof of their advanced education, officials said. If students enroll at the college, they can “stack” additional certificates on the way to an associate degree.
“It could be the difference, when you're in the interview process, of one of our students being hired over somebody else because they have this certificate,” Collier said.
Ten students at Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in Derry Township began their first advanced course — math for the technologies — in October and are slated to finish in February. Thirteen are enrolled in a course this spring, said Paula Rendine, a college career coach who works with the centers.
WCCC plans to add Connellsville Area Career and Technical Center and Fayette County Career and Technical Institute in Uniontown to the program, Rendine said.
The idea of stacking college certificates “has been very impactful for the students,” Rendine said. “They can work on a certificate and complete that, then work on another certificate. It's smaller chunks; they're able to grasp that.”
Nick Polansky, 20, of Youngwood said students can focus on classes specific to their field. After graduating from Hempfield Area High School in 2012, Polansky earned a natural gas and oil technology certificate from WCCC.
“It's kind of like a stepping stone if you'd want to go on,” Polansky said. “It's all focused on the core subjects ... (This) is more hands-on and deals with stuff you're going to be doing every day on your job.”
A summer internship with Williams, a natural gas transport company, led Polansky to a full-time job in December. He'll graduate from WCCC in May with an associate degree in applied industrial technology.
Three years ago, BCCC expanded a program with the Butler County Area Vocational-Technical School to offer two courses in heating, ventilation and air conditioning. The college added the technical courses in 2011 as demand in the field grew, said Jane Dollhopf, coordinator of high school programming.
Students who take both courses and pass three national certification exams can graduate with 18 credits toward an associate degree in Technical Trades-HVAC option, Dollhopf said.
Those students often are hired right out of school, but “for those who want to go on ... that option is always there,” she said.
Next year, the college wants to add a blueprint-reading class, which would feed into the Technical Trades-Applied Technology certificate program used by workers in machining, welding and automobile and truck repair, Dollhopf said.
At CCAC, traditional high school juniors and seniors can take courses at any campus through a dual-enrollment program, spokeswoman Elizabeth Johnston said.
Such partnerships are vital to filling employment gaps, experts say.
“It's very unfortunate, but there is a perception and a stigma associated with manufacturing and with some of the trades that a vocational school or (career and technology center) might include,” Halper said. “I think kids picture a dusty, dirty kind of factory. ... That's just not what the modern manufacturing facility is. It's a very highly skilled, highly technical workplace.”
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.