Workforce Spotlight

What’s WORKING at Pennsylvania College of Technology?

October 10, 2019

Tucked away in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania College of Technology is building a career-ready workforce.  As a special mission affiliate of Penn State, Penn College has advanced to become a nationally ranked, premier technical institution where a Penn College degree—combining a comprehensive education with hands-on experience using advanced technologies—is a considerable advantage in the world of work.  With a history of innovation and flexibility to meet emerging, real-world needs, the institution is positioned to attain even greater levels of success.

We are sitting down with Chris Ray, Executive Director for Workforce Development at Penn College, to discuss new initiatives and programs they are working on to supply PA businesses with the workforce they need and close the skills gap through customized solutions. 

Q:  Chris – Pennsylvania College of Technology prepares students for jobs.  In fact you have a 97.3% graduate placement rate.  What do you attribute this success to?

It’s a combination of many things. The applied technology programs offered by Penn College address the most pressing needs of industry. Whether in manufacturing, health care, construction, or technology, Penn College’s curriculum is designed to meet company needs. Our students learn by doing with a substantial focus on hands-on education in our labs. Lastly, many of our instructors have backgrounds working for industry – they understand the needs of companies firsthand. Combine all of those, and the result is graduates who are fully prepared to contribute positively to a company from Day One. That’s why companies who employ Penn College graduate consistently recruit more. Our Career Fair statistics reflect that demand; we often have four or more openings represented at those events for every available student.

Q:  An emerging need with employers across the state is in Plastics.  Tell us about the opportunities this degree holds and jobs that exist. 

There are more than 500 plastics companies in the state, yet Penn College’s plastics program is one of only six accredited programs in the entire country. The supply-and-demand equation for companies is bad in many sectors, but it’s dire in plastics. Nearly every student in our program holds one or more job offers prior to graduation. Those jobs range from the technician level to plastics engineers. The opportunities are plentiful, and the pay is excellent. One benefit to pursuing a career in plastics is that it can lead just about anywhere from automotive to aerospace to consumer goods to health care. Careers in plastics are incredibly diverse. 

Q:   What are the biggest stereotypes we need to overcome when we talk skilled trades’ degrees?

Take manufacturing as an example. Perceptions, particularly among parents, are at least a generation outdated. They think of these jobs as dark, dirty, dangerous and/or tedious, yet advanced manufacturing today could not be more the opposite.  These plants are bright, clean, and incredibly high-tech. The skill sets needed by manufacturers reflect that reality – they have little to do with putting things together and a great deal to do with programming, servicing and operating the sophisticated equipment that fills these facilities. The opportunities are abundant, and the pay is eye-opening to those who hold incorrect pre-conceptions about these careers. The same can be said about opportunities across the applied technology spectrum.

Q:  Recently Penn College and New Jersey Institute of Technology were awarded a $7,996,530 federal grant to develop industry-driven strategies for apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing fields. You anticipate providing training to more than 3,000 apprentices over the next four years.  Tell us about your apprenticeship model.  

It begins with the fact that apprenticeships address the skills gap by upskilling existing employees and our model begins with the needs of employers and their apprentices. It was built with a company-centric focus that includes many attributes unique to Penn College. We incorporate a scheduling design that minimizes work disruption by delivering training in half-day segments rather than small chunks done multiple times per week. To the extent possible, we allow the companies to determine those times around their shift schedule.

Our delivery is also flexible and business-friendly. While some apprentices come to the college for training, we are seeing a dramatic uptick in demand for our iris training platform that allows apprentices to participate from any company location and can link multiple locations simultaneously. This is ideal for larger companies that want to train apprentices at their varied sites, as well as smaller companies that can band together in an apprenticeship consortium. Travel is eliminated, and apprentices can be back to work the minute each session ends.

Specific to the grant award, our program is called MIDAS (Modular Industry-Driven Apprenticeship Strategies). Our intent was to take the new concept of smaller apprenticeship pieces and stack them together into programs that meet the requirements for state and federal registration. MIDAS also allows for programs to exist that before now were not able to be considered apprenticeships. For instance, supervisor and project management programs are eligible to receive funds which help offset the cost.

Q:   How can a company get involved with the apprenticeship program at Penn College?

The Apprenticeship Center at Penn College was built to make it as easy as possible for companies to participate in apprenticeship. We handle most of the administrative work including the registration and tracking process, and we develop customized training and on-the-job competency lists. Companies can then focus their efforts on identifying apprentices and putting the emphasis and mechanisms in place to allow mentors to guide each apprentice through their on-the-job learning.

To participate, companies simply need to reach out, and we will walk them through the entire process. With our assistance, companies have only a couple of forms to complete, and we can incorporate a company into an existing program within a matter of weeks, or build a new program within a few months.

Tie apprenticeships back to your previous question regarding our academic programs and you’ll see how Penn College is uniquely positioned to help employers address their skills gap challenges in two distinct and important ways. Our graduates are a vital pipeline of new talent for companies, while apprenticeship and other workforce training helps upskill the current workforce. This powerful combination is required to overcome the substantial challenges companies face due to a lack of skilled workers.

Q:  What do you say to parents about the skilled trades and the education opportunity in the technical trades market? 

A significant part of that conversation goes to dispelling the misperceptions we discussed. The reactions are incredible once parents come to understand the realities of applied technology careers. Our 97.3% graduate placement rate is due, in part, to the quality of our education, but it’s equally reflective of the massive demand for our graduates.

Our pre-apprenticeship program is geared toward high school students and is designed to give them a foundational knowledge in advanced manufacturing concepts. It’s through the introduction of this program that our Workforce Development team has the most direct interaction with high school students, parents, and educators. Once these key stakeholders, particularly parents, understand the realities of the job market, the high-tech skills required in today’s workplace, and the earnings potential of these careers, it’s quite eye-opening.
The challenge for both the college and companies is scale. Educating one parent at a time is highly effective for that individual, but it does not put a dent in the overall skills-gap problem. We need to share this story far and wide, and swing the pendulum quickly toward these careers before it’s too late for the companies involved. We are beginning to see companies delay expansion, move, or even shut down for a lack of skilled workers in technical trades. When the remedy seems as simple as drawing more people to plentiful, good paying jobs, it’s frustrating to everyone involved that such a transition has been so elusive.