Pittsburgh’s Pipeline Problem and How the City is Solving it
The city isn’t graduating enough children with the skills they need to meet future employer demand. Here’s how schools are working with local businesses and technology firms to do something about it.
Over one week this last summer kids in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood turned into urban agriculture experts, building a greenhouse from water bottles. In another neighborhood rec center, kids tested a virtual reality tool from Carnegie Mellon University. At still another, they dissected a pig heart and printed 3D models of the organ.
The kids in these Rec2Tech programs aren’t only having fun. They’re building valuable skills, by design. The Pittsburgh region is set to add thousands of new jobs in the next decade, and it has to be ready.
LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill, deputy chief of education at Pittsburgh’s Office of the Mayor, is one of many who saw a great opportunity.
“Why not turn our [rec] centers into these places where people can come and really gain access to 21st century skills?” she told Remake Learning last summer.
Critical thinking, teamwork, basic engineering concepts—they’re all in high demand, says Linda Topoleski, vice president of Workforce Programs and Operations at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which just completed a major survey of local employer needs.
Yet while Rec2Tech is working hard to create future innovators, storm clouds are gathering. On the eve of hosting the National League of Cities’ annual City Summit Nov. 16-19, which brings leaders from across the country to hear about Pittsburgh’s transformation from steel capital to technology and medical hub—the city and region stand at a crossroads.
While Pittsburgh is receiving well-deserved accolades for its economic rebirth, the city isn’t out of the woods.
The pipeline of children graduating with the right sets of skills isn’t enough to meet future demand, finds “Inflection Point,” a new workforce study by the Allegheny Conference. Even if every child remained in the city after graduation—a big if—the region would still lack enough skilled workers to fill the demand. In short, too few kids are thinking about jobs in fields that the city is building—fields like high-tech manufacturing, radiologic technology, and other middle-tier jobs.
Pittsburgh is looking down the barrel of 340,000 retirements in the next decade, but only 260,000 high school seniors are entering the workforce, says Topoleski. Manufacturers in the region will lose one-fourth of their workforce in the next 10 years. That means that “we need to make sure our skill sets are aligned with workforce demand,” says Topoleski.
Everyone Has a Role to Play
Remake Learning is doing its part to prepare the next generation for the future, with its network of in- and out-of-school programs that help develop the STEM, collaboration, and creative thinking skills needed in the jobs of tomorrow. Further, says Topoleski, Remake Learning has “ignited a level of interest and excitement about looking at education in new ways,” and is helping kids develop the concepts and activities that are important building blocks to later success. “When you’re exposed to 3D printing at summer camp in 8th grade, that’s a key skill later,” she says.
The most forward-thinking schools in the region are rethinking learning, placing hands-on experiences alongside the traditional models. Students at the Elizabeth Forward schools in Elizabeth, Pa. have access to 3D printers in the Dream Factory, a state-of-the-art maker lab, and Chevron-funded FabLabs at the Carnegie Science Center and the Intermediate Unit 1 let kids and their families build creations with high-tech machinery.
The region is also working to expand opportunities for marginalized youth. Programs like TechHire Pittsburgh, a Three Rivers Workforce Development Board effort, create opportunities for disadvantaged young people to receive short-term technical training for jobs like computer user support specialists, for example (also called quality assurance positions) who test software. These programs can function as quick onramps to better paying jobs that do not require a four-year degree. With a typical salary of $44,000 and an 11 percent growth rate, according to Inflection Point, these support specialists jobs offer a ladder to the middle class.
Employers are getting involved more directly with their pipeline of workers: the schools.
Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers, for example, connects employers with students directly. The organization runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems for the business. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.
Intervala, a company that assembles component parts for different precision products, was looking at a $20,000 investment in new machinery to assemble a device for Stork, a home conception device. High school students in the Burrell school district were tasked with improving one aspect of the assembly process. They found a $1,000 solution by adding a simple gadget to the assembly process, saving the company its $20,000 investment, says Scott Dietz, manager of Workforce Education Initiatives at Catalyst Connection. Dietz is the liaison between education and industry for the organization. The program has been running at Burrell for six years, and science teachers have taken the lead in helping students work through the process, applying the scientific process to the company’s problems. “That’s critical thinking 101,” says Dietz.
In addition to building skills, “kids get out of the four walls of their classroom and see what industry looks like. And teachers can see how things work, and carry it back to classroom,” Dietz says. Catalyst Connection, with support from ALCOA and Chevron, offers a two-day training session for teachers to learn about the program and about problem-solving principles and methods in industry. Many teachers are applying those principles in their project-based learning in the classroom, says Dietz. They have trained 60 teachers so far this year, with 150 more scheduled between now and June.
“For us, it’s about influencing the influencers,” says Dietz. “Guidance counselors have too much on their plate. But teachers are go-to people to encourage kids on career pathways, or encouraging the skills in math and science that are needed.”
It’s not just middle and high schools that are developing these skill sets. Community colleges and others are also working to better align courses with employer needs or emerging job clusters. “Westmoreland Community College has a whole new facility around advanced manufacturing,” says Petra Mitchell, executive director of Catalyst Connection.
But Jobs, Education—and Expectations—Must Be Better Aligned
Though many are doing their part to ensure that kids have secure futures, one thing is missing. Parents, youth, and educators need to shift their thinking about what constitutes a high-growth, important, worthwhile occupation, says Topoleski.
A first step is to better align education and training with the jobs in high demand. Currently, these systems are far from aligned. “We have a machinist track in high schools with only 350 students, but 700 open jobs,” says Topoleski. Machinist jobs are projected to grow by 11 percent over the next decade.
Part of the misalignment starts at home, with parents, says Topoleski, who typically want their children to get a four-year college degree. Yet two-thirds of the new jobs in the region will not require a BA, the workforce report finds. National figures back that up. Projects by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce find that while a majority of jobs by 2020 will require education beyond high school, half of those jobs require less than a BA.
“The reality is that the economy of the future will require highly skilled talent but not necessarily skills from a four-year program. Not to denigrate BAs, but we need both,” says Topoleski.
But many parents in Pittsburgh lived through the turmoil of downsizing in the manufacturing sector with mass layoffs. Parents don’t want their child to live with that volatility, says Mitchell of Catalyst Connection. But, she notes, most of today’s layoffs occur in the biggest employers, not the small manufacturers that make up the Pittsburgh region. Small manufacturers, she says, are not as prone to layoffs as the big companies who are beholden to their shareholders, so volatility is less of an issue.
“There’s an emotional piece of this,” says Topoleski. “[Parents] have to let go of where things were and realize the future is going to look different. If they want their kids on a promising, relevant path, they have to take a look at workforce demand and what it will take to get there.”
If Pittsburgh is to continue to innovate, it must prepare its children for the future. That means tapping their potential early, imbuing them with the technological and critical thinking skills they will need, and providing clear pathways into viable jobs that can accelerate Pittsburgh on its goals of inclusive innovation.