Promoting trade jobs is front and center in package of Pa. House bills

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House Republicans trumpeted the passage of a slew of workforce development bills this week — a top priority for the chamber’s leadership and what they hope will be an easy sell to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Echoing Wolf’s February budget address, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said at a press conference with dozens of Republican colleagues Monday that the package is designed so that “the next time an Amazon or another large company is considering where to find capable and available workers, they won’t take a pass on Pennsylvania.”

House GOP leadership said the 11-bill package, backed by both Republicans and Democrats, will collectively help private business coordinate with trade schools to set up new or expand existing programs.

They also hope bills cataloging existing workforce development programs and expanding a database of programs and courses that are transferable to an institution of higher learning could help inform parents and students of trade career choices.

The 11 bills received a combined 38 “no” votes on their final passage earlier this month. Thirty-four of those dissenting votes were cast on a bill to establish a tax credit for businesses that fund trade program expansions at public, charter, or technical schools.

The legislation is the only proposal with a significant state budgetary impact — the tax credits would be capped at $15 million per fiscal year.

Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill, said his bill would encourage companies to invest in workers and help employers develop specific skills for local needs.

Collectively, Tobash said he hopes the package will mean “we don’t see Texas license plates in southwest Pa.,” as skilled workers from out of state take jobs that Pennsylvanians could fill.

In a statewide study by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, 14 percent of 650 interviewed employers said their biggest concern was finding qualified workers.

This phenomenon is called the skills gap, or the difference between the expertise demanded by employers and held by job seekers. Workforce development programs often aim to tackle this problem.

But some research suggests that the skills gap may not be a real issue.

A 2016 Harvard University study found that employers increase their hiring requirements when more people are looking for work, casting doubt that unemployment was mostly a result of unskilled workers unqualified for jobs.

While the package was well received within the Capitol, some outside the building weren’t as pleased.

Mark Price, a labor economist with the liberal Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, found the plan too bullish on trade job potential in the state, WITF reported.

“The idea that you could raise income significantly in Pennsylvania’s economy if we just trained more electricians and plumbers is not in touch with reality,” Price told the station.

The House is counting on bipartisan support when it doubles down on workforce development later this session. Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, pointed to a bill he is cosponsoring with Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, and Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence, to provide matching state grants to businesses that build trade apprenticeship programs in local high schools.

The proposal is modeled after a program in Hanover, Pa., in Klunk’s district.

A memo seeking support from lawmakers notes that “the scourge of youth unemployment is as rampant in urban as in rural Pennsylvania, so grant dollars will be awarded in a geographically diverse manner.”

Solomon said his goal is for all students, from those bound for an Ivy League college to those heading to a local trade school, to be exposed to some hands-on training in welding or another trade.

Establishing new programs — and finding the revenue to pay for them — won’t come until later, however.

In this first batch of bills, GOP floor leader Cutler acknowledged that students, parents, school officials, and business owners need to know that, for example, there is a new database of in-demand jobs online before the state can see a difference.

“It’s incumbent upon us to talk about it, and for parents and students to ask the right questions,” Cutler said.

Cutler said he thinks support from trade unions, businesses, and other lawmakers could help spread the word to families looking to advance without taking on student loan debt.

The package now moves to the Senate. A spokesperson for the Senate Republican majority said no timeline has been set for consideration of the bills.

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