Workforce Spotlight

The Challenge Program Inc.: Meeting Workforce and Education Needs in Allegheny County

February 13, 2019

Since 2010, national and regional studies have been ringing the bell about a shortage of skilled and qualified employees coming our way. The future is now here.

Employers are currently experiencing the challenge to fill open positions today.

The Challenge Program, Inc., a Johnstown-based program since 2003, is making strides toward meeting workforce development needs.  The organization raises awareness with a focus on the next workforce population — high school students. An active and hands-on program, the Challenge Program partners with local businesses and more than 100 Pennsylvania schools to implement a unique brand of workforce education and regional career awareness. In September 2018, TCP opened its first satellite office at 429 Fourth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh with a short-range strategic plan to partner with all of Allegheny County’s 60-plus secondary schools and attract more local companies to help them educate students about the opportunities the region offers. “We’ve been serving Allegheny County for over 10 years and we felt it was important for us to open an office in Pittsburgh and have people on the ground,” said TCP President Barbara Grandinetti. “There is a lot of opportunity in this region and students need to know their options.”

An academic motivational program for students in grades 10 to 12, TCP was designed to challenge students to compete in five award categories — Attendance, Community Service, Academic Improvement, Academic Excellence and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), all of which are geared to help instill solid work habits that will prepare them for success in school and along their chosen career path. 

A key component of the program is workforce development, with a mission of connecting business and education. Together, the private sector and educational institutions work together to teach students about employment opportunities in the communities where students live; as well as the pathways they need to explore to obtain the job they desire. 

Telling students is one thing. Showing them makes it real. TCP facilitates workforce activities between businesses, educators and students that include facility tours, innovative field trips such as breakfast with the CFO and lunch-and-learn sessions with company employees. There are also Business Partner Weeks, which can be created by each business to engage and develop name recognition among the students; as well as industry-related classroom presentations, project-based learning activities, and of course, job-shadowing/internships.

The results? Jobs for qualified high school graduates. At manufacturing facility Gardner Denver, and at Williams Energy, a simple facility tour sparked the interest of career and technology students to apply for open positions. Two graduates were hired full-time with Gardner Denver and another was hired as an intern with Williams, which led to a permanent position. G.A.P. Federal Credit Union implemented a student-run kiosk in the cafeteria of their partnered school. Students are eligible for training after they take a financial literacy class and are encouraged to apply for work after graduation. To date, eight graduates have been hired for full/part-time and seasonal employment.

Two of TCP’s major corporate partners, Corle Building Systems in Bedford County and COE Distributing in Fayette County, developed, with TCP, eight summer learning/intern positions between them. The applicant pool is interested senior students who are finalists in any Challenge Program award category*, creating a pipeline of qualified candidates for these companies.

To bring attention to the skills gap in manufacturing, TCP and business partner Riggs Industries created a media “Signing Day” event for two career and technology graduates who committed to work for the company. The event was so well received, it was duplicated with COE Distributing’s first four summer interns later that spring.

“We are anxious to see workforce success throughout the regions we service,” Grandinetti says. “We are increasing workforce connections between students and high growth industries. We are addressing the workforce crisis with raised awareness.” Grandinetti says TCP’s long-range plans include additional offices in Harrisburg and eastern Pennsylvania, and they plan to eventually have a presence in every school throughout the state.  “Having our people working with community businesses and schools will translate into jobs for young talent, keeping them in Pennsylvania.”

If you are a Pennsylvania business wondering how to overcome the challenge of recruiting, or a secondary school who wants their students to successfully achieve opportunities in their community, call The Challenge Program, Inc. at 814-533-9401. *Finalists are a group of students who meet or exceed the criteria for each individual award category. These finalists are eligible to apply for summer positions at Corle and COE.

By Anna Gibbs, program operations manager with The Challenge Program, Inc.