Robert L. Cherry, Partner4Work CEO, visits with PA CareerLink staff at the Downtown Pittsburgh office. Photo by John Beale

“The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

That droll (and dire) assessment of 21st-century employment prospects first appeared in 1978 in an obscure computer industry journal called Datamation.

A half-century later, Partner4Work is advancing practical and visionary strategies to prepare Pittsburgh workers for the job market of the 2030s — a decade in which 85 percent of the jobs that will exist have yet to be invented.

Partner4Work is the official workforce development agency for Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh. It annually allocates more than $26 million to public and private programs charged with building a thriving, adaptive regional workforce.

In June, Partner4Work was named a national anchor institution for the White House Workforce Talent Hub Initiative designed to boost apprenticeship and technical education programs in the region.

Robert Cherry, 46, has been Partner4Work CEO since arriving from Milwaukee in July 2021. Previously, he served as Deputy Secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, managing 2,500 employees across six statewide divisions.

Post-college work with community anti-poverty groups set him on his eventual career course in the workforce field. 

“I realized that through short-term training we can move someone from a lower socio-economic status to the middle class fairly fast. We see it every day in our work. One of the most important things that can be done for a person is to give them agency to take care of themselves and their family.”

Over the past year, Partner4Work has won several large federal grants, notably $3.75 million from the Investing in America initiative to provide thousands of Pittsburghers with employment training for current jobs — as well as skills to take on whatever new jobs are likely to appear in the ever-changing future.

NEXTpittsburgh spoke with Cherry about the impact these efforts will have on Pittsburgh’s economy and people.

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Robert L. Cherry, left, talks with Rodney L. Regan at PA CareerLink’s Downtown Pittsburgh office. Regan, of Wilkinsburg, has been using the resources at PA CareerLink for more than a year. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: You got to meet last month with Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary, during her Pittsburgh town hall meeting with Mayor Ed Gainey. Was that related to Partner4Work receiving the Investing in America grant?

Robert Cherry: Yes, and it was great! There’s a few reasons why it happened. One, there has been significant infrastructure investments in this region, so there is a lot of interest federally in southwestern PA right now, which has received the eighth-largest infrastructure investment in the country.

That investment is garnering a lot of interest and support from the White House. They have a real interest here, and recently two hydrogen hubs have been associated with Pennsylvania. That also brought Secretary Granholm here, as well as some grid infrastructure work with Duquesne Light. We’re excited because it will bring a lot of jobs here also. 

NEXTpittsburgh: How long does your connection with the White House Workforce Talent Hub Initiative run, and are there any immediate goals? 

Cherry: The initiative is ongoing, and it is a city-led initiative we’re working on with the Gainey Administration. They have designated Partner4Work as the anchor institution. And that’s important because, by anchoring this work in a workforce board, it solidifies the work continuing.

It’s already the role of the workforce board to push these types of initiatives, and this particular initiative is focusing on four sectors — advanced manufacturing and biomanufacturing, construction and infrastructure, clean energy and broadband.

Robert L. Cherry, left, poses with Leo Morrow, program supervisor for PA CareerLink, at The Veterans Corner at PA CareerLink’s Downtown Pittsburgh office. Finding employment for veterans is a priority for Partner4Work. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: You’ve been CEO of Partner4Work since July 2021. What changes have you observed with regard to the Pittsburgh labor market?

Cherry: The main thing that has changed is this tight labor market coming out of the pandemic. That’s got us doing things differently. It’s resulted in being able to get employers to the table a different way. Employers are now thinking more about job quality and retaining and gaining employees, and that is allowing us to do a lot of innovative things.

One of the things we’re doing is the PIT2Work program at Pittsburgh International Airport for individuals interested in construction. We’re putting pre-apprenticeship programming right on the airport site. The airport has been a great partner, and they’ve given us guarantees that anyone who goes through the training will get a construction job on the site.

NEXTpittsburgh: What if an apprentice decides construction isn’t their occupational calling?

Cherry: If that person finds out construction wasn’t what they wanted to do, they are guaranteed a job inside the airport. There are two union opportunities, no matter what. In addition to that, there is daycare on site, and with the help of PRT we’ve rerouted two bus routes that go out to the airport, which removes the need for folks to have a driver’s license to work construction on that project. This is an example of a fantastic partnership and a great employer who is willing to go the extra mile to get the workforce they need.

NEXTpittsburgh: Partner4Work just received $900,000 in Department of Justice funding to expand efforts in helping individuals find reentry employment.

Cherry: The great thing about our program is we go in pre-release. Before the person is ever released from county jail or another facility, we’re already in there working with the person, getting services set up for them. They are able to come out, go right into the training or go right into work. It reduces the opportunity to reoffend because they’re getting to work right away and getting a skill in their hand.

Kiara Higgins, left, senior director at PA CareerLink, talks with Robert L. Cherry at PA CareerLink’s Downtown Pittsburgh office. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: What’s a typical work day for you?

Cherry: Our main priority is to talk with employers every day, see what their needs are and try to be the connection between them and the skilled worker. We’re not a direct service organization. We push this money out the door into investments to other community-based organizations. They perform the lion’s share of work. But we’re building out pathways for folks. We’re making sure that the supply and demand sides come together in a meaningful way every day. It takes a lot of time, but we like to think we’re getting it right. 

NEXTpittsburgh: How is Partner4Work able to keep its programs oriented toward new occupational categories, some of which may not even yet exist?

Cherry: We’re in lockstep with our employers as we understand the new technologies being created. We stay on top of not just advanced manufacturing, but biomanufacturing as well. Recently we received $3.7 million for EV Technician, Cybersecurity and Mechatronics. We will train 300 people over the next three years in those sectors. 

It’s really keeping our ear to the ground regarding the new skills and training needed to have a worker ready. It’s also looking at incumbent workers in those spaces while creating opportunities for those folks to train up within the same organization or same company as that technology changes. 

NEXTpittsburgh: “Incumbent workers” – those are workers who may need a serious skills upgrade to stay employed in their field?

Cherry: We support companies and workers as they bring in new technologies and help them teach new skills to employees. And once that employee moves up, that’s another space for someone else to come in at the entry-level in that company. Retention is on a lot of employers’ minds right now. They want to make sure they don’t lose someone they have. There is an exponential impact to a company that can train up their own folks to make sure they can bring the next person in.

NEXTpittsburgh: What do you think the impact of Artificial Intelligence will be on the type of jobs Partner4Work looks to develop?

Cherry: Technologies will always evolve, but before the first automobile there was a wagon wheel maker. Then the automobile came and look how many jobs that created. 

Robert L. Cherry, CEO for Partner4Work. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: Does Partner4Work envision a place for the arts in local workforce development?

Cherry: Absolutely. We’re looking at the creative economy right now. We’re working with the Pittsburgh Film Office to build out career pathways in that space. There are all types of creative pathways for folks to get involved in that industry, and there are all types of hard skills built into these creative economy jobs.

NEXTpittsburgh: Our political and business leaders talk often about the critical need to keep workers in Pittsburgh, young workers in particular.

Cherry: It is of tremendous importance to our employers that people stay here. Not only that people stay, but that people come here. Our area trends older than most places in the United States, and as more Boomers are retiring, it creates a real strain on the workforce here. We have to be very intentional about attracting people here and keeping people here. A lot of folks come to the universities in Pittsburgh every year. We need to have strategies in place to keep those folks here and introduce them to Pittsburgh in a new way. 

Ultimately, people need to see themselves in the place where they’re going to live. The workforce has a lot to do with that, so as a workforce board, we pay attention to exposure, especially with young people. We run the Learn & Earn program every year to get young people connected to work and exposed to different opportunities here in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh. Through that work, they can see themselves fitting in here and creating a living and growing a family here.

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.