Local leaders focus on skilled labor shortage

Staff writer – The Derrick, September 21, 2011

Rod Griffin of Specialty Fabrication & Powder Coating (from left), Valley Grove School District Superintendent Jeffrey Clark and Chris Reber, executive dean of Venango Campus, listen to the discussion at Tuesday’s roundtable. (By Sheila Boughner)Education, business and civic leaders gathered Tuesday morning to consider how they might work together on workforce development in Venango County.

The gathering of about 50 people at UPMC Seneca Place, organized by the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce, drew business owners, all the superintendents from Venango and Forest counties, county commissioners and candidates for the office, officials from Venango Technology Center, Venango Campus, UPMC and more. It was the first in what organizers intend to be a series of on-going discussions on the topic.

The program began with a video clip of Mike Rowe of the television show, “Dirty Jobs,” speaking to Congress about the importance of skilled labor and the need for a national public relations campaign aimed at reconnecting the country with those workers — such as plumbers, welders and construction workers — who “make civilized life possible.”

In his comments, Rowe pointed to the shortage of skilled labor, an issue that resonated with many who spoke during the roundtable discussion that followed.

Oil City School District Superintendent Joseph Carrico, who moderated the discussion, said he hears the same comments about a need for skilled workers in Venango County.

Pulling together

He pointed to some 9,215 students enrolled in Venango County schools, both public and private.

“Look at that potential workforce,” he said. “Look at the power we can bring to this sort of initiative . . . if we are all pulling in the same direction,” Carrico said.

“The Venango region should be a first choice, not a last choice,” he said.

Those present heard from many already involved on the workforce development front, including Colleen Stuart of the Venango Training and Development Center; Chris Reber, executive dean of Clarion University’s Venango Campus; and Lance Hummer of the Keystone Community Education Council.

Stuart noted a “disconnect” between the various efforts.

“We all do neat stuff, but we have to get together and say, ‘How does this all work together,’” she said. There was talk of compiling a list of those existing efforts and forming work groups on various topics.

Work ethic

In addition to focusing on the skills side of the equation, the conversation also touched on character traits necessary for a quality work force.

“How do we educate the parents?” Rod Griffin of Specialty Fabrication & Powder Coating asked. “Because for a good work force, you have to have morals and ethics.”

“It starts with a work ethic,” he added. “But if they don’t want to come to work . . .”

He pointed to those “who are waiting for their unemployment to run out before they look for a job.”

“They are taking it just because they don’t want to go back to work,” Griffin said.

Many agreed a work ethic is crucial.

“How do you motivate a person to get off the system to take an entry-level job, to say I want to be somebody, I want to earn my way and provide for my family?” asked businessman Gary Shaw, who pointed to the need for “blue collar pride.”

There was a general discussion of ways to inform students of job opportunities and career options and the need to reach children at a young age.

Cranberry school district Superintendent Maria Pappas pointed to a new program in her district aimed at helping children recognize their interests and talents early on.

“If they are doing what they love, they will have that work ethic,” Pappas said.

Changing the mindset

Nick Hoffman of the Regional Center for Workforce Investment in Meadville, one of the younger professionals at the table, noted that, “Every generation seems to think the kids aren’t all right.”

“Don’t get hung up on that,” he advised.

He suggested the kids will be all right “if we can just educate them about what opportunities are available, and get parents off the bandwagon that every kid needs to go to college.”

Those in the room agreed they are in rural western Pennsylvania by choice and on the need to help youngsters see the region a viable option for them as well.

“We need to send the message that it’s great to be in Venango County,” said Susan Williams of the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of people think their kids need to leave here to be successful. We need to change that mindset.”

Kristin Amerdash, coordinator of Oil City’s Weed-and-Seed program, rolled out a slogan aimed at encouraging a new mindset: “What works? Positive attitudes, confidence, integrity.” The word “excuses” is crossed out. The slogan continues, “On the job, in school, at home, for life.”

“If you have those three things, a positive attitude, confidence and integrity, you are guaranteed to succeed,” she said after the meeting.

The Weed-and-Seed team has been working on the slogan over the past six months, and asking every group it met with to define work ethic, she said.

“We have been talking to businesses, schools and the community and it boiled down to those four items,” she said. “The plan is to find sponsorships that will enable us to get this slogan everywhere, on billboards, in schools, in restaurants, so it becomes a theme for Oil City and the region.”