Brian Fitzpatrick, Dwight Evans address ‘skills gap’ plaguing small businesses at local hearing
Two Pennsylvania Congressmen, local and state officials hashed out strategies Monday morning to diminish the “skills gap,” or shortage of candidates applying to work in industries like manufacturing.
Developing that workforce means acknowledging where multiple areas — including infrastructure, the school and criminal justice systems — intersect, sometimes resulting in difficulty for local businesses looking to attract qualified workers, said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8, of Middletown, and Rep. Dwight Evans, D-2, of Philadelphia.
For example, Fitzpatrick said, some prospective workers might not find employment due to a lack of public transportation nearby. Meanwhile, another official said, a person arrested for a DUI might remain unemployed for a time because their license is suspended.
“If left unaddressed, the skills gap could not only impact these businesses and workers, but it my also lead to significant economic spillovers throughout the state in general,” Fitzpatrick said. “Addressing this issue demands our attention now.”
The two representatives took testimony from three area experts in labor, business and education at the Boilermakers Local 13 hall in Bristol Township, intending to share the experts’ answers with Congressional colleagues on the Committee on Small Business.
Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO union, asked the representatives to increase funding to career and technical education programs to counteract what he described as a concern in students’ proficiency in math and reading.
“In some cases, even graduates ... are at a sixth- or seventh-grade level for both reading and math,” he said. “We need to increase education funding for these programs to better prepare these students for graduation.”
Grant funding is also pivotal in allowing for pre-apprenticeship training programs at Bucks County Community College, said Susan Herring, interim executive director for the school’s Center for Workforce Development. Her center partners with local businesses to train about 2,800 employees a year in areas like industrial safety and computer applications, with help from county, state and federal money.
It’s not just “hard skills” like training and education workers need, but also “soft skills” like work ethic, communication and dependability, said Alex Halper, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
“A lot of employers say, ‘I can’t teach that; that needed to be taught years ago,’” said Halper, who added that officials could help connect youth with summer jobs where they could learn these “soft skills.”
Fitzpatrick highlighted a need to reduce the “stigma” around apprenticeship programs, where participants can receive on-the-job training; he said such programs could serve as a better alternative to a four-year college degree for some youth.
“The cruelest thing we can do to our kids is pressure them to go to a four-year university, graduate with mountains of debt, with bleak job prospects ... that’s a very difficult way to start one’s life,” Fitzpatrick said.
“There has to be more attention to other pathways (than four-year colleges),” Eiding agreed.
Fitzpatrick has co-sponsored initiatives to help train more skilled workers and in doing so fill some of what he said are about 6 million unfilled jobs nationwide.
If passed, the Apprenticeship and Jobs Training Act would grant employers up to $5,000 in a tax credit for training a worker in a qualified apprenticeship program, while the American Apprenticeship Act would call for competitive federal grants to assist states in between 20 percent and 50 percent of pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship program instruction.
Both acts have remained in committees since fall 2017.