Conference highlighted models for collaboration between employers and schools

Calling them “a wasted resource,” PNC Financial Group’s top executive said our region’s high schools and their students must figure prominently in our region’s employment picture to avoid the kind of talent drain his own company began heading off nearly two decades ago.

“If the region’s corporate community doesn’t get actively engaged and figure out how to harvest this resource, we’re going to have a problem,” PNC’s Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Demchak told attendees at our Future Ready Partnerships Conference in April. In turn, he added, that means helping students understand that enrolling directly in a four-year degree program isn’t their only option and may not always be the best choice.

Demchak was one of several presenters opening the Conference with examples of partnerships between businesses and schools that both prepare students for the future and strengthen the region’s workforce. Among others were Mascaro Construction Co.’s chief executive; a Greensburg Salem School District administrator and a Mon Valley state legislator. who delivered video remarks. 

The presentations sparked discussions throughout the day—in breakouts and networking sessions—about how businesses can partner with schools to give students content knowledge and soft skills that employers need.

For its part, PNC ramped up efforts to recruit younger employees 18 years ago, when Demchak joined the company and it took a sobering look at its own demographics and hiring patterns. Instead of recruiting talent away from other banks as many competitors were at the time, PNC undertook measures to develop talent in-house. The company bolstered college recruitment, internships and other training at the entry level. As a budget line item, it looked expensive, but it’s paid off handsomely, Demchak said.

More recently, on the heels of a workforce shortage projection from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which Demchak chairs, PNC began piloting PartnerUP with help from the Consortium. The program takes pre-employment training directly into high schools and gives students a chance to interview for entry-level jobs at PNC or other participating employers including Allegheny Health Network, Comcast and Peoples Natural Gas Co.

It gives students alternatives, Demchak said, adding “We tend to teach kids their goal in life is to go to college” and high schools are judged on how many they send. But going directly into the workforce doesn’t preclude getting a degree later, he emphasized. “It’s not this binary thing.”

“Working at a public company like PNC can open your eyes to opportunities that are out there and steer you to smarter choices,” Demchak added, noting said that students and their families need to discuss “the costs and outcomes” of different choices.

Like PNC, Mascaro Construction also has begun reaching out to high schools, said President and Chief Executive Officer John Mascaro, Jr. His company realized six or seven years ago that its industry would face workforce shortages and that there were “multiple pathways” into its careers, including some that students could pursue without degrees. The company is now trying to interest more high school students by educating teachers about its business, including as host last fall for the kickoff event of the Consortium’s Educator in the Workforce program. Additionally, Mascaro is working with Community College of Beaver County to create a “High School Academy,” through which students can earn credits toward a one-year associate’s degree.

Just as businesses have recognized the need to connect with public schools, so too have our region’s school districts begun looking to employers for help creating the opportunities students need to explore and prepare for careers.

Greensburg Salem has adopted a multi-faceted approach that relies heavily on connections made through intermediaries like workforce investment boards, the Consortium and others, the district’s Coordinator of Secondary Education Ken Bissell, Ed.D., told attendees. By doing so, the district has brought in partners like PPG Industries to provide classroom speakers and workplace exposure to teachers; Excela Health System, which is helping train students for entry-level employment in environmental and dietary services; Westmoreland County Art Museum, which has provided exposure to nonprofit and arts careers; and tool and die makers, which are helping create a pre-apprenticeship program. Additionally, Greensburg Salem has connected with post-secondary partners like Westmoreland County Community College to help students earn college credits and with industry partners to plan a tech-math course for students interested in skilled trades.

To underscore the impact community and business partnerships have on students, state Rep. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport) delivered video remarks crediting the beginnings of his career in government and politics to a job-shadow he got through the Consortium’s own career exploration program, The Future Is Mine (TFIM). Now marking its 19th year, TFIM was a pathbreaker in connecting schools and businesses.

Breakout sessions at the Conference gave attendees yet more insights into partnerships that might serve as models. Among those showcased were the Consortium’s  Student Powered Solutions and Educator in the Workforce programs; PNC’s PartnerUP program; Covestro’s education outreach programs; apprenticeships available through the German American Chamber of Commerce, Goodwill, Duquesne Light and the construction industry; and initiatives educators are leading such as an employer fair that South Allegheny School District offers students, parents and community members and an internship program Franklin Regional School District has developed for students.

“We don’t want this to stop with presentations,” The Consortium’s Director of Organizational Advancement Jackie Foor said. “We want you to go into these breakout sessions with your questions and bring your own thinking to them as well. Most importantly, we want you to take home ideas for your own partnerships.”

Consortium Program Director Debbie Pixton, who served as the Consortium’s point person in organizing the Conference, encouraged attendees to borrow from or build on the examples discussed during breakouts. “These were meant to provide you with strategies you can adopt or adapt,” she said.

Attendees wasted no time taking up the challenge; conversations overheard during the networking sessions hinted at partnerships in the making.

One school administrator talked with a peer from a nearby district, for example, about collaborating on a business fair for students and their families. Two officials from yet another district described plans during a table discussion for engaging local businesses in a co-op program to provide internships for students with nearby businesses. A small business owner, in turn, mentioned his interest in bringing students into his company to build skills in CAD-CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing).

The interest expressed in business/school partnerships was a “joy” to The Grable Foundation’s Executive Director Gregg Behr, but it came as no surprise. Behr, who also is the founder of Remake Learning and chair of the Allegheny Conference’s K-12 Business Engagement Committee, portrayed partnerships developing in southwestern Pennsylvania as part of an evolving mix of innovations that has brought the region national attention.

“You’re already making this happen in truly extraordinary ways,” he said, noting  that thought-leaders in education “are constantly pointing to the Pittsburgh region because of the ways we’re wrestling—and have been wrestling for more than a decade—with issues about the future of learning and work.”

Collaborations showcased at the Conference represent “an opportunity to capture the hope Mr. Demchak described and get more businesses plugged in.”