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Skilled-worker shortage highlighted at event hosted by Thaddeus Stevens College

02/17/2017 Lancaster Online By Alex Geli

Jonathan Cassel attended Millersville University, wanting to become an elementary school teacher. But after numerous lectures and textbooks, Cassel had an epiphany.

“I can’t see myself in this career,” he said, feeling threatened by the chances he’d go thousands of dollars in debt with no job to show for it.

After a three-year break to regroup, Cassel, now 22, started studying heating, ventilation and air conditioning at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, where a typical student graduates with multiple job offers.

Cassel would be the norm and not the exception in the near future, where most students won’t need a four-year college degree to find well-paying jobs, according to a higher education expert who spoke in Lancaster Wednesday.

A four-year degree isn’t for everybody, Kevin Fleming, dean of instruction at Los Angeles-area community college, told a full house at Lancaster Convention Center.

More than 8 million students 24 and younger chose a four-year school in 2015 compared to about 4 million who opted for a two-year school, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Skilled-worker shortage

Fleming’s message arrived as a nationwide skilled-worker shortage is plaguing the county.

Local businesses are struggling to find qualified recruits as schools like Thaddeus Stevens and Harrisburg Area Community College are unable to keep up with increasing demand.

Some 140 companies that attended Thaddeus Stevens’ Feb. 16 career fair were each looking to fill at least 10 job openings, according to Laurie Grove, director of career services at Stevens.

The demand was so high that Thaddeus Stevens had to create a virtual career fair to accommodate the hundreds of companies originally put on a waiting list.

Dealing with the threat of local businesses potentially leaving the area, the college is building a $20 million facility in southeast Lancaster city. The Greiner Advanced Manufacturing Center, set to open in fall 2018, will bring up to 450 students vying for a spot in the high-demand skilled workforce. 

Last spring, college President William Griscom said, more than 800 companies with 2,400 job openings were competing for Stevens’ 350 graduates.

The need to change focus

Students and parents who came to listen to Fleming said they believe the worker shortage stems from public schools that push students toward attending a four-year college, as well as a decreased interest among young people in trades.

“I guess people are getting lazy,” Penn Manor High School senior Thomas Campbell said.

Campbell, who studies architecture at the Brownstown Career & Technology Center full-time, said that young people who are interested in trades are often looked down upon by their peers.

The 17-year-old hopes to attend Thaddeus Stevens for architecture in the fall.

Warwick sophomore Alexa Oehme is keeping her options open in terms of post-secondary education. She wants to graduate college without a massive debt burden and “not to hate my job when I get out of college.”

Oehme is eying the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences for nursing, but she wouldn’t rule out attending Thaddeus Stevens, where less than 10 percent of students are women.

She said there are unfair expectations on women to go into a field that would require a four-year degree. Her cousin, she said, broke those boundaries by entering the Air Force.

“You can do whatever you want,” Oehme said. “Women can do whatever they set their mind to.”

Her mother, Becca, said that their family truck-driving business has felt effects from the worker shortage firsthand.

“For years it’s been an issue,” she said. The older generation is retiring, but young people “have no interest.”

Yet salaries, nowadays, are “unbelievable,” she said.

At Thaddeus Stevens, the annual median starting salary for 2015 graduates was $33,000.

Fleming’s talk was hosted by Thaddeus Stevens and sponsored by Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 and LNP Media Group.

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