Turzai/Tobash Legislation that Elevates Vocational Education Wins Unanimous Approval on House Floor

"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."
-John W. Gardner, Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under JFK and author of "Excellence."

Michelle Atkinson sees John Gardner’s insight playing out every day. As the Human Resources Generalist at SAPA Extrusions, she struggles to find qualified workers for their aluminum extrusion plant in Cressona, Schuylkill County.

“Right now, we have five openings for maintenance electricians and we have other openings for industrial mechanics,” she said. “Finding people qualified and willing to take the jobs is an ongoing problem for us.”

Pay is hardly the issue. One electrician hired four years ago earned over $80,000 a year, with overtime, just two years out of high school, where a career and technical education (CTE) path he chose qualified him for the job. Rather, Atkinson said that a big reason she sees for the shortage of qualified workers is that the prevailing culture “looks down” on a vo-tech career – the scorn that Gardner referred to.

House Bill 202, sponsored by Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and Mike Tobash (R-Schuykill), approved unanimously on the House floor on Monday would not only help increase the supply of qualified workers but elevate the image of a CTE path. In broad terms, the legislation will move us away from what Turzai called a “one size fits all” mentality about education.

“Providing additional routes for students highlights the value of a variety of educational paths and careers,” Turzai said. ‘This legislation will provide career and technical education students with greater flexibility in fulfilling their graduation requirements.”

In more specific terms, the legislation allows students on vocation career paths to substitute a certificate in a skill; metalworking is one, for the current requirement of passing proficiency tests, the Keystone Exams, to earn a high school degree. The student would also be required to complete locally established, grade-based requirements for academic content areas associated with the Exams.

“There are all kind of ways of being skilled and we have to get the message across that all these skills are equally important,” Tobash said. “This legislation helps show students who might give up on the current educational system that we need them all.”

“For too long there has been a disconnect between government, public education, and workplace skills, and we’re failing both our employers and our students because of it,” he added.

The talent crisis is acute, and if continues, could threaten our very economic base especially as the number of baby boomer retirees continues to expand in the coming years.

David N. Taylor, President of the PMA, noted there are an estimated 9,000 jobs on plant floors throughout our commonwealth that remain unfilled because of a lack of available talent, and a lot more are on the way.

“When considering our current workforce shortage, remember also that some companies have more than half of their current workforce within just a few years of retirement.  This isn’t a problem, it’s a crisis,” Taylor said. “A skilled workforce is paramount to a successful manufacturing sector. The jobs in this industry are high paying, meaningful, and family sustaining, which is something more young people should know when thinking about their future.”

On the national level, The Manufacturing Institute of the National Association of Manufacturers and Deloitte in their third skills gap report “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond,” estimates that over the next decade, nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs likely need to be filled and the skills gap is expected to result in two million of those jobs going unfilled.

The study cites the increase in baby boomer retirements, but also an expected economic expansion. An estimated 2.7 million jobs are likely to be needed as a result of retirements of the existing workforce and 700,000 jobs are likely to be created due to natural business growth.

Inez Feltscher, Director of the Education and Workforce Development Task Force with the American Legislative Exchange Council, said that the statistics serve as a warning that we have to move beyond the bias against vocational paths for high school students.

“For the last 20 to 30 years the thinking has been that kids need a college degree to be successful,” she said. “At the same time, we have this idea that manufacturing is dirty and lower level work.”

The irony is that many find the hard way that the dream of a college degree remains just that, and the pursuit of it comes at a high cost. Tobash said that 46 percent of those who start college still don’t have a degree after seven years.

“They end up with no degree, no skills, and they’re in debt with college loans,” he said. “Not exactly a recipe for a successful start in a career.”

There’s another way. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) offer certificates for machining, industrial maintenance and metalworking. The Institute says the nationwide salary average for industrial maintenance is $17 an hour and there are 12 job openings for every certificate earned. More are coming. More than 50 percent of industrial maintenance workers are over 45.

Increasing the number of qualified workers improves the larger picture as well.

“Human services costs will go down,” Tobash said. “At the same time, our tax base will increase and we can stop relying on expanding gaming and taxing cigarettes to balance our budget.”

This problem wasn’t created overnight, and it certainty won’t be fixed overnight. However, House Bill 202 is a simple, common sense solution that could make a big impact. The bill will now be considered in the Senate and will ultimately need the approval of Governor Wolf.