Gene Walker, Partnership Manager of the Pittsburgh Promise. Photo by TH Carlisle.

Pittsburgh is facing a new challenge: the prospect of a severe worker shortage, particularly in the skilled trades. This shortage is due, in part, to social attitudes that have promoted four-year college degrees and discouraged or even degraded other post-secondary options. As a result, students have been pushed to pursue four-year degrees and been told that these skilled trade positions are less than desirable. The consequences of these attitudes are just now being felt by local employers and, if not addressed, will reach crisis level in the next 10-15 years.

I was at an event a few weeks ago to listen to a panel discussion on the state of the Pittsburgh region’s workforce. My intent for this event, like most, was to sit quietly in the back and learn something new. Like many workforce events, this one didn’t go as planned. Why? Well, someone on the panel made a statement that I hear often, and each time I do, I get this pain in my head and my heart. The phrase goes something like this: “We really want to hire more people from the city, but we can’t find anyone with the skills, talent or education we need.” What I hear in this statement is “our city schools are failing, and the students they produce aren’t worth taking the time to train for the skilled jobs we need to fill.”

As a product of Pittsburgh Public Schools and one of our tougher neighborhoods, I know firsthand that there are many students who are worth the risk. As a young person, I was dependent on people seeing past where I was from and where I went to school and, instead, seeing me for who I was: a young man with potential, promise, and worth a risk to see what I was capable of achieving. I don’t know what my education or career path would have looked like if I was cast aside simply because of my school or neighborhood. I needed someone to take a chance on me, someone to see what I could be and not what I was at 17, 18 or even 25 years old. Today’s young people and young adults need that same consideration. They need someone to give them a first, second and maybe a third chance with targeted training and education to help them pursue the many high demand careers available in our great city.

I agree there are some serious issues that need to be resolved before we can even think about solving the anticipated employment deficit that is predicted over the next 10 years. It’s easy to list all the reasons why we can’t solve these issues, but why is no one talking about the ways to solve them? From my vantage point we have two options: continue our current course of leaving people behind, or we take a bold step and remove barriers and take the training to the people.

I would like to suggest a course of action that I believe can begin to solve this issue. It’s a three-stage process implemented concurrently, that will take bold and coordinated efforts by a lot of people and industries.

Stage 1: Increase business support of our public education and its career curriculum. As the most viable pipeline of tomorrow’s workforce, our educational systems and businesses need to work together to help young people better understand the career options available. Students need to be shown and taught the value and legitimacy of skilled work and trades. This can be accomplished through a partnership, not just in an advisory capacity, but also in terms of financial resources.

Stage 2: Implement an all-inclusive career mentoring model that links trade and industry professionals to both in-school and out-of-school individuals. This mentoring would help young people better understand the various high need employment opportunities available, while also helping to raise the understanding and expectations of the employers who are in desperate need of an expanded employee pipeline.

Stage 3: Trade and industry leaders create and implement increased and aggressive training opportunities for individuals ages 18-24, specifically designed to admit the maximum number of candidates. These programs would be housed both in-house and in the community, with as few barriers to entry as possible. This would mean providing assistance to those in need of entrance exam help, obtaining a driver’s license and transportation, and criminal history expungement.

The issues we face are easy to talk about, but the solutions are hard and expensive. I’m suggesting that we stop waiting for the problem to reach crisis level and instead do something now to stop it. I realize this sounds like some pie in the sky dream with a great deal of risk. However, the reality is that failing to act also carries great risk. Yes, this will require a tremendous amount of collaboration between educators, employers, government agencies and nonprofit providers, which has proven to be a great difficulty in the past. But then again, all great things come from taking great risk, and the time to act is now.

Gene Walker is a graduate of Peabody High School and Bloomsburg University and lives on the North Side with his wife, two children and two dogs. He is an advocate for public education and in addition to his volunteer work coaching baseball, he is a mentor and works as the Partnership Manager with a local non-profit organization serving Pittsburgh Public School students.