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Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro announces ‘unprecedented’ effort to provide job training

  • Chris Potter/WESA
Gov. Josh Shapiro announces a new job-training initiative, flanked by leaders including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Lieutenant Gov. Austin Davis, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.

 Chris Potter / 90.5 WESA

Gov. Josh Shapiro announces a new job-training initiative, flanked by leaders including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Lieutenant Gov. Austin Davis, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.

Standing before a backhoe on a back street in Pittsburgh’s Esplen neighborhood, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro announced a new worker training initiative that is, he said, the first of its kind in the country.

The Commonwealth Workforce Transformation Program, he said, would take advantage of historically low unemployment rates and an influx of federal infrastructure money to expand the skilled workforce, including people in communities that have been left out of previous booms.

“The only thing holding us back from meeting this moment is enough skilled laborers,” said Shapiro before signing an executive order to inaugurate the program. The initiative, he said, will “fill critical infrastructure needs with more trained workers who will be prepared not only for that first project but then for all the projects to come.”

The program will earmark $400 million of federal funds, provided by President Joe Biden’s infrastructure spending and the Inflation Reduction Act, to reimburse unions and companies that train workers needed to complete projects funded by the measures. The money can be used to cover the training itself, or for ancillary expenses such as child care or equipment a trainee needs to participate. Up to $40,000 per employee may be spent, meaning the program could provide training to 10,000 workers statewide.

“We can do big things in this country, but we need the workforce to be able to do it,” Shapiro said. “One of the biggest hurdles we face is having enough workers trained and ready for these kinds of projects at a time when we now have more money than ever before for this type of investment.”

State Labor Secretary Nancy Walker noted that employers faced a conjunction of “historically low unemployment [and] historically high job availability” — and that the pool of potential workers faced barriers “such as reliable transportation, child care [and] internet access.” The program is designed to help accommodate such needs, and help “connect with underserved communities and provide them with good, well-paying jobs.”

The program dovetails with federal efforts to expand opportunities to long-overlooked communities. First Lady Jill Biden and other officials visited the region last month to talk up similar efforts to build out the labor pool at a time when many people in the building trades have more work than they can handle.

Officials there praised an initiative at the Pittsburgh International Airport, where construction of a new terminal is underway, to provide on-site child care support for people working on the site. They predicted that more such efforts would arise from Pittsburgh’s designation as a federal workforce hub to ensure training and opportunities find their way to people who could benefit from them.

The new initiative also reflects Shapiro’s continuing effort to connect with working-class residents. At the outset of his term, he signed another executive order that waived a college-education requirement from a broad swath of state jobs — another effort to expand opportunity to people who’d previously been excluded by such requirements.

“We promised that we’d always fight for working-class people here in Pennsylvania. And today’s announcement is delivering on those priorities and those promises,” Shapiro said Monday.

“This is an unprecedented executive order,” he added. “No other state is doing this yet.”

Congresswoman Summer Lee, who was on hand for the announcement, praised the initiative for its commitment to economic justice.

“We must make sure that Black and brown folks who too often have been left behind, or who have purposely had their communities disinvested, be given the same opportunities to grow into a career as often as others in our region,” she said. “We need workforce programs that can turn generational disinvestment into generational wealth.”

But as if to underscore the possibilities of the moment, Lee also praised training initiatives underway at more conservative building trades unions such as the Carpenters, hailing their “crucial apprenticeship … and training programs.”

A number of union leaders and elected officials also attended the event, including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Deputy Mayor Jake Wheatley, Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, state Sen. Wayne Fontana and state Rep. Aerion Abney. Prior to the event, there was some lighthearted discussion about how often it had been since a governor had last visited Esplen, an often-overlooked community in the western reaches of Pittsburgh. But Darrin Kelly, the region’s top labor official, noted the location — where work crews were engaged in replacing lead water lines with safer pipes — was significant.

“What you see behind us — small little construction project, right? Small little street. That right there is probably the most important project that we’re investing in because we’re investing in our neighborhoods,” he said.

Kelly praised the effort to reverse “mistakes” in which some communities were left out of previous rounds of investment and of the opportunity to work on jobs created by it.
“Yes, we’re investing in our bridges, our dams, our telecommunications,” he said. “But the most important thing is the investment in [the region’s] most important asset, and that’s its people.”

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