Like many states and counties around the country, Berks County, Pennsylvania – the location of Reading – is trying to attract employers back to a region where jobs were once plentiful. One key to its strategy is providing businesses, including manufacturing companies, with a pipeline of skilled workers.
I had the opportunity to visit the Schmidt Training and Technology Center at Reading Area Community College (RACC) last week to see how displaced workers and others can get the skills they need to obtain and keep jobs in growing industries. Last fall, RACC was a member of the Pennsylvania consortium that was awarded $20 million as part of the Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistantace Community College and Career Training Program.
RACC augmented its portion of the TAACCCT funding – about $700,000 – with an accompanying grant from a local foundation. The combined funds were invested in two ways. First, RACC purchased additional training equipment and expanded its course offerings in three growth fields: advanced manufacturing, healthcare information technology, and renewable energy maintenance. Second, RACC invested the foundation grant in expanding its career counseling and support services for individuals in the college’s workforce development programs.
Partnering with multiple regional companies, the local workforce investment board, and the Greater Reading Area Economic Partnership, RACC is serving displaced workers by giving them the skills they need to change careers or move up a career ladder. RACC emphasizes multiple entry and exit points. Students can earn an initial certificate that leads to an entry-level job in as few as six weeks. RACC is also integrating its career training programs with local high schools. It is identifying qualified and interested students as early as the 10th grade, and allowing them to take training courses for college credit in their junior and senior years. Many of these students will be ready for employment right after graduation.
RACC President Dr. Anna Weitz told me, “We also have to make sure these students are ready to succeed in a workplace. Skills are only part of it.” Every student in the career training program is offered the opportunity to work directly with a career counselor – not just for resume improvement and interview practice, but to make sure students are prepared for conflict resolution in the workplace, teamwork, and interacting with coworkers from diverse backgrounds.
As we move towards the second round of TAACCCT funding – another $500 million for community colleges across the United States to be announced later this year – the Labor Department is learning what works and helping community colleges share best practices as well as collaborate to share rare resources and strategies. The lessons RACC’s leadership has learned implementing their first grant are another step in that process, and we expect the result will be more skilled workers and more successful middle-class careers for Reading and Berks County.
Seth Harris is the Deputy Secretary of Labor.