Community colleges in southwestern Pennsylvania are taking a proactive approach to creating a pipeline of workers for a plant that isn’t even built yet.
Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker is slated to open in Beaver County in the early 2020s, and will bring 600 permanent jobs, as well as jobs for supporting industries. But before the announcement was even official, Community College of Beaver County (CCBC) and other community colleges in the area sent representatives to Texas and Louisiana, which already have cracker plants, to study the best practices for creating process technology programs.
“We went to community colleges in the Houston area,” said CCBC president Chris Reber. The school is among the 40 organizations, which includes nonprofits, businesses and economic development organizations that are part of an advanced manufacturing advisory board. CCBC, along with Community College of Allegheny County and Westmoreland County Community College, wanted to tailor their degree programs to ensure they were meeting not only the future career needs of students, but of the regional workforce.
And while there was some focus on Shell, all the schools want to develop workers for other advanced manufacturing jobs as well.
The immediate goal, with Shell’s plant in mind, is to develop workers in three training areas: engineering, mechatronics and process technology. CCBC’s process technology curriculum was created with the help of the North American Process Technology Alliance (NAPTA).
“We’re the only program within a 300-mile radius that uses that industry standard,” Reber noted. “Our challenge now is we have to scale up, because we have to expand the lab” because there’s so much demand for the program. Now in its third year, CCBC’s process technology program has 70 students enrolled.
John Goberish, CCBC’s dean of workforce and continuing education, stressed that CCBC isn’t just training workers for cracker plant jobs.
“This degree program is not only for petrochemical workers, but for jobs in pharma, steel and water treatment,” he said. “We want to make sure there is flexibility, so should the market change, students can work in a variety of related industries.” Not only did CCBC get advice from its counterparts in Texas, it sought advice from local companies as well. “We met with partners right in our own backyard,” Goberish said.
A dwindling talent pipeline is a major concern for industry across Pennsylvania, acutely so in its southwestern corner, where the departure of many manufacturing jobs over the past 30 years led to a major disruption in the workforce. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s 2016 workforce study, “Inflection Point,” now finds that there are not enough workers in the pipeline for the region’s future workforce: It predicts a looming shortage of some 80,000 workers.
Ron Logreco, assistant dean at Community College of Allegheny County, said that school has discovered that part of the challenge attracting workers has been a wariness among students’ parents and grandparents of anything to do with manufacturing or manufacturing jobs. “A lot of the population still has a grudge about manufacturing after it left 30 years ago,” he said. “A lot of good employment was destroyed.”
To appeal to those parents who may consider steering their kids to another field, CCAC has moved away from using the term “advanced manufacturing” as a catch-all, instead focusing on its mechatronics program. Then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited the CCAC campus in 2014 and called the school’s mechatronics program a model for the nation.
David Pistner, vice president of continuing education, workforce and community development at Westmoreland County Community College, said the goal is to train workers, especially displaced workers and veterans, not just for one specific job, but for skill sets that are easily transferable. The cracker plant will drive demand for construction workers, which is the part of the pipeline WCCC is focused on, he added. But a big factor will be getting kids in middle and high school interested in the potential advanced manufacturing jobs.
“If you are someone mechanically inclined, and mechanically curious, and you’re able to understand machining and blueprints and schematics, you do have a career for life,” he said. That can mean everything from petrochemicals to autonomous vehicles to robotics to automation, he added. “We don’t want to just train workers for one career because it does cycle through. But if you could train someone for manufacturing and water treatment and other jobs, you’re better serving the community, the region and the individual with that cross training.”