By Steve Esack, Call Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — For 15 years, Parkland High School teacher Wes Spence has worked with local businesses to set up job-shadowing and internship opportunities for 10th-graders looking to parlay their vocational training into a job after graduation.
He has a stable crop of about 50 businesses that participate in the program run jointly by Parkland and Lehigh Career and Technical Institute. But sometimes it’s hard to find companies willing to take a chance on high school students, especially in working with technologically advanced manufacturing equipment.
“Precision machine tool technology … is very difficult for us to place year after year for four to five students,” said Spence, who splits his teaching time between Parkland and LCTI. “Working with machinery can be dangerous. Some employers have issues with insurance liability.”
But a bill winding its way through the state Legislature aims to make it more attractive for Pennsylvania businesses to open their doors to high schoolers.
Offered by Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-Lehigh, the measure would set up a four-year pilot program giving businesses tax breaks if they offer high schoolers internships and other real-world exposure in their respective industries. The bill cleared the House Labor & Industry Committee on Tuesday.
The tax breaks total $10 million over four years, and have the backing of Lehigh Valley school officials.
“We are very supportive of House Bill 1725,” Allentown Superintendent Russ Mayo said.
East Penn Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger said on face value Mackenzie’s bill seems like a good idea. But he’d like to see the economic impact of the tax breaks. “I’ve always advocated a good working relationship between the world of work and what we do in education,” Seidenberger said.
Under Mackenzie’s CareerBound bill, the state L&I department would solicit bids from regionally based Workforce Development Boards to institute seven school-to-work pilot programs. L&I would create a standardized acceptable curriculum for how businesses are to give students real-world experience via tours, field trips and “practical and extended exposure” to the industry. Then the regional Workforce Investment Boards would work with local businesses and businesses to match their needs.
Preference would be given to “high-priority occupations” including various manufacturing and engineering fields, according to state L&I data.
All local Workforce Development Boards would be required to submit a report to the Legislature, governor, and auditor general each school year. The reports would summarize how many students completed the programs and whether they landed jobs.
The tax credit program would expire in 2018. Four years is a sufficient amount of time to see if the program works, Mackenzie said, and encourages collaboration among schools, the workforce development system and companies.
The Lehigh Valley Investment Board covers Lehigh and Northampton counties. For several years, it has operated a program under another nonprofit wing, the Lehigh Valley Business/Education Partnership, in which business can receive state tax credits if they give high schoolers internships.
Mackenzie said his new concept will not interfere with that program. It will enhance it and help start other programs across the state by focusing on the manufacturing and engineering sectors, he said.
“This is something that is really lacking on a statewide scale,” said Mackenzie, who worked in L&I before being elected to the Legislature in 2012. Like all House members, he faces re-election in 2014.
Many of those jobs remain vacant or are projected to grow at a higher clip than the workforce can provide, Allentown schools Superintendent Mayo said. If businesses are offered a tax incentive to expose students to the fields earlier, he said, students and the economy will be helped in the long run.
The bill could be voted on next week in the House. If it is approved, it would move to the Senate.
Vacant high-priority jobs
• 6,870 annual manufacturing vacancies that require no post-secondary education and pay between a low of $18,860 and an average high of $56,440.
• 985 annual manufacturing vacancies that require technical school or two-year college degree and pay between a low of $27,830 and an average high of $55,740.
• 6,560 annual manufacturing vacancies in manufacturing and engineering that require four-year degrees and pay between a low of $40,090 and an average high of $127,660.
Source: State Department of Labor & Industry’s “Pennsylvania Career Guide.”