One of the breakout sessions during the PA Chamber’s first-ever Innovation Summit in May featured a discussion by Thaddeus Stevens College President Dr. William Griscom, and High Companies CEO Mike Shirk, about their respective organizations’ unique partnership. The school and the corporation are working together to ensure that students graduate with the skills necessary to enter into promising careers — many of which are at the High Companies — that not only pay well, but have a clear path to future success. This workforce-centric collaboration is helping to address Pennsylvania’s jobs skills gap while also ensuring that the talent and work ethic the Thaddeus Stevens College helps to instill is staying right here in the Commonwealth.
Catalyst chatted with Dr. Griscom and Mike Shirk about the history behind this dynamic partnership, how it is preparing students for 21st century jobs and how they hope to expand the program’s reach in the future.
Catalyst: When did the High Companies first enter into a workforce partnership with Thaddeus Stevens College, what inspired the partnership and how long has it been going on?
Mike Shirk: We’ve had a strong relationship in place for decades, but it has both broadened and deepened in recent years. Through both the High Companies and the High Family Foundation, we are supporting the growth of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in many ways.
We regularly fund equipment and provide student scholarships. We partnered to open a satellite campus in 2016 in High’s Greenfield Corporate Center, and Greenfield Architects designed the college’s new Advanced Manufacturing facility. Beginning in 2018, High Steel Structures started exposing students to advanced welding technologies in weeklong on-site classes at our plants. We are also collaborating to educate our community about great opportunities in today’s workforce and funding TSCT programs that expose K-12 students to STEM-related technologies and careers.
Catalyst: How have the High Companies’ investments helped to expand Thaddeus Stevens College’s offerings to students since the partnership began?
Dr. Griscom: Their support of our capital campaign to construct an Advanced Manufacturing facility has allowed us to triple the size of three of our most in-demand programs and freed up space to significantly increase our welding program.
Catalyst: What key workforce skills do you believe Thaddeus Stevens College helps to instill in students?
Mike Shirk: There’s many but I’ll limit it to three: first, the school teaches students technical skills that are also aligned with industry demand; second, it helps them learn how to approach and master problem solving; and thirdly, it teaches them how to succeed in today’s workforce.
Catalyst: Dr. Griscom, how does your college commit to helping the economically and socially disadvantaged obtain a skilled trades education?
Dr. Griscom: Any student who is Pell eligible receives the Stevens Grant, which provides tuition, room, board, tools and books. The student is only responsible for the Estimated Family Contribution on the federal financial aid application; this can range from 0 up to approximately $5,000. In addition, the College provides these students with a myriad of support systems to help compensate for the resources they might not have.
Catalyst: Do the High Companies actively seek out and recruit Thaddeus Stevens College students as potential new hires?
Mike Shirk: Absolutely. We have hired more than 20 in the last two years or so.
Catalyst: What plans do High and Thaddeus Stevens College have for the future of this important partnership?
Dr. Griscom: If the College’s state funding request is approved, the College will lease additional manufacturing space to expand existing programs and add new ones from High Real Estate, which would assist in the College doubling its enrollment. In addition, the College is going to significantly expand and enhance its welding programs, which should help High Industries address its workforce needs.
Catalyst: Mike, tell us more about the High Foundation’s $30,000 grant to the new Thaddeus Stevens campus. What does the grant help to fund and what does the foundation aim to achieve through this investment?
Mike Shirk: The High Foundation focuses investments on eliminating poverty, strengthening community and contributing to the enhanced economic vibrancy of central Pennsylvania. TSCT trains students for high demand careers, and the graduates enter the workforce with great wages and unusually low student debt. The investment you mention was for equipment at the College’s new Advanced Manufacturing campus.
Like many other investments we make at TSCT and elsewhere, it helps provide more students with attractive family-sustaining careers and supports economic growth in our community. Bill [Dr. Griscom] and the entire team earn our investment every day.
Catalyst: Dr. Griscom, has your school’s partnership with the High Companies served as a model for how other educational and private sector institutions are working together to close the job skills gap?
Dr. Griscom: Yes, it has. This year, the College had over 1,400 employers seeking the College’s graduates for over 4,000 jobs. The partnership with High Industries has allowed the College to expand its enrollment and number of graduates to address this disparity.
Catalyst: Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf paid a visit to High Steel Structures to discuss the benefits of workforce investment. How does High plan on working with the governor and other elected officials toward building a 21st century workforce in the Commonwealth?
Mike Shirk: Many would agree that there is probably no better accelerator of prosperity across the Commonwealth than connecting our citizens with good jobs. This year, Gov. Wolf outlined a vision of PA creating the strongest workforce in the nation. That’s a big idea we can all rally behind, and we’ll need the mindset changes and focused investment to make it happen. Education, government, business … none of us can achieve that vision alone. But I’ve seen us do incredible things when we come together with common purpose and conviction. We must all play a part. That means every institution, public or private, four-year, two-year, or otherwise, must be asking the important question — “How well are our programs aligned with our economy’s needs?” It means governments differentially funding institutions and programs that best align with the demand out there and, hence, have the greatest potential for impact. And it means all businesses asking themselves, “What are we doing to be a positive partner in inspiring students and investing to create a strong workforce in Pennsylvania?”
At the High companies, we’re investing our time, talent and resources in three areas: 1) expanding the capacity of career and technical education, 2) supporting students with rational career exploration, and 3) exciting students early on about STEM career paths. We’re doing this in partnership with our elected officials and several organizations, including the Lancaster County STEM Alliance and the PA Chamber.
Catalyst: Last year, Thaddeus Stevens College publicized the fact that there was an average of 12 jobs available for each student upon graduation from employers who intentionally recruit Thaddeus Stevens College students and graduates. Is this statistic a result of employers recognizing the skills gap and working to close it, and how much does it emphasize the need for a skilled workforce in Pennsylvania?
Dr. Griscom: The skills gap is the result of: increasing retirements; less people in the population; and misalignment between the education system and the needs of the economy. The 1,400 employers with over 4,000 jobs did not get the human resources they needed from Thaddeus Stevens College or anywhere else. This is a major impediment to economic growth. If employers cannot find the human capital they require in Pennsylvania they will go to a location where they can.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.