While the importance of career and technical education has captured the attention of state lawmakers, local leaders in business, industry and education say a lack of interest in CTE programs is causing a workforce development gap.
A bipartisan bundle of bills currently making its way through the Pennsylvania Senate touts the role of CTE in the Keystone state and aims to bolster programs and make access to them easier for students. In February, the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County launched CentreReady, an initiative aimed at helping students develop skills necessary for employment in the Centre County workforce.
A CBICC survey of over 60 companies in Centre County found that 44 percent of businesses said technical skills were lacking, while 36 percent said that “soft skills” like teamwork, work ethic, communication and critical thinking were lacking.
So what does CTE look like on a local level, and what are area graduates learning?
At the South Hills School of Business and Technology in State College, students may earn associate’s degrees and certificates in areas like information technology, business, health care, criminal justice and graphic arts.
But administrators like Ellen Spinelli, the career services coordinator at South Hills, say that while the labor market is hot in certain sectors, “we’re finding a shortage” of qualified applicants for many jobs that are opening up in the county.
Particularly, she said, they see a lack of applicants in administrative services, engineering technology and accounting.
Penn State is one of the largest employers of South Hills graduates, and they are always seeking administrative assistants, IT workers, building managers and accountants, she said.
“The biggest problem that all of these employers are facing is they have jobs for people that have career and technical education skills,” said Jeffry Stachowski, community outreach director for South Hills. “They don’t have ... as many (jobs) for liberal arts grads.”
He said the focus at South Hills and in career and skill-focused schools is to “re-educate parents and students about the realities of the labor market and about what the needs are.”
At South Hills, Roman Nekrasov is getting his third degree — an associate’s in IT.
“I always liked playing with computers, fixing them, assembling and taking them apart, and it seems like the future will be heavily involved around IT, so that’s why I got excited and came back to school,” he said.
Originally from Russia, he came to the United States with degrees in mechanical engineering and architecture and worked for a few years building cell towers.
“(South Hills) offered a good opportunity here,” he said. With small classes and hands-on practice, he said, he could tailor the educational experience to his needs.
“When I came to school I thought ... ‘I know a lot about computers,’ but I was wrong,” he said. “I was comfortable with computers, but now I actually know what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Nekrasov, who is in the second year of his associate’s degree, said he already has a job offer lined up working as a technician on body scanners, where he can use the networking and programming skills he learned.
Several bills in the state CTE bundle aim to make transferring credits easier and expand articulation agreements, which allow students with two year degrees to transfer those credits to a four-year degree if they choose. One is aimed at raising awareness of CTE and others try to connect students to training programs and jobs in growing fields.
For Melanie Boggs, career and technical education at South Hills has taught her time management, efficiency and software skills.
“In the real job world you have to get stuff done by a certain time or the clients just don’t want it. Here, it’s the same way. If I turn it in late, I’m going to get docked a great deal of points,” she said.
Boggs, who is from Altoona and also in the last year of her associate’s degree, is studying civil engineering in the engineering technology program at South Hills.
Already, she has a job at engineering firm Pennoni in State College, where she works one day a week and will transition to full time this summer.
Using AutoCAD, a software program engineers use to create 2D and 3D drawings, she took drone photos from earlier in the day, mapped the student parking lot at South Hills and designed ways to make it more efficient as part of her capstone project.
South Hills Engineering Technology Program Coordinator Karen Maynor said students in the engineering technology program must take classes in civil, mechanical and architectural engineering.
“So they have to have experience with all of the different types of knowledge base,” she said.
When it comes down to it, said Stachowski, the administrators and faculty at South Hills want their graduates — and all job-seekers in central Pennsylvania — to secure good jobs with steady income by using the skills they learned in school.
“Academic preparation, but with a vocational goal in mind. That’s the key today,” he said.