The bridge between jobs and the labor skills gap is education


It’s encouraging to continue to hear Gov. Tom Wolf champion an issue that has been one of our priorities for years: the need to focus on workforce development to ensure today’s students are prepared for tomorrow’s jobs.

As the governor continues to note, one of the biggest challenges facing employers today is finding skilled workers. During his budget address, the governor said, “Amazon made its decision not to locate its second headquarters in Pennsylvania … [due to] workforce concerns.” He also highlighted the struggle of the Shell ethane cracker plant in Western Pennsylvania to find welders and pipe fitters.

This is a growing concern among employers, as evidenced in the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s 28th Economic Survey, conducted in August 2018. For the first time ever, more job creators — 14 percent — listed difficulties finding skilled and qualified employees to fill open positions as the biggest problem facing their companies over any other issue (taxes came second).

A 2018 skills gap study from the National Association of Manufacturers predicts as many as 2.4 million manufacturing jobs in the United States will be unfilled by 2028 and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and information technology jobs are projected to grow 13 percent through 2026.

Nationally, high schools are not preparing students beyond graduation. A 2016 study from the Education Trust found that only 8 percent of U.S. high school graduates had completed a college- or career-prep course of study, with nearly 50 percent not completing either.

To address our existing skills gap, Pennsylvania’s public education system needs to partner with businesses to help students explore career opportunities and learn the skills employers are demanding.

Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA) is leading the charge by creating the largest public educational aquaponics facility — controlled environment agriculture that uses fish and water to grow plants without soil — in the U.S. The AgWorks project connects Pennsylvania students with modern agriculture and career and technical education. Through partnerships with businesses and universities, students also have access to hands-on learning experiences in different lab settings, including research and genetics.

As CCA leverages technology to better prepare students, the Pennsylvania Chamber is encouraging businesses to work with schools to develop innovative programs addressing local workforce needs.

The Chamber has been proud to work with the Wolf administration on this important issue — first by having me, CEO Gene Barr, serve as cochair on the Governor’s Middle Class Task Force, which focused largely on workforce development. The governor has also asked me to help cochair his new Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, which aims to engage state agencies involved in workforce efforts to develop a multitiered strategy for closing the jobs skills gap, making the state more competitive on a national and global scale.

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, about 30 million U.S. jobs that paid an average of $55,000 per year didn’t require a bachelor’s degree as of 2015. While a four-year degree certainly has its place in today’s workforce, we must recognize it should not be the only option for students. CCA understands this and last year saw 40 percent of the school’s graduating class enter the workforce or pursue technical education.

With students and businesses experiencing a significant skills gap, it’s vital for the commonwealth’s education and business communities to work together to give students ample opportunities to explore their career interests before entering the workforce or going to college. Doing otherwise is a disservice to our economy, local communities, and future generations.

Gene Barr is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Dr. Maurice Flurie is CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy, a Pennsylvania public cyber school.