Can a slate of technical education bills help Pennsylvanians?

A bill package moving rapidly through the legislature aims to get Pennsylvanians into higher-paying skilled industries, like construction. But some economists suggest lawmakers need to do more if they want to improve the labor market. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A bill package moving rapidly through the legislature aims to get Pennsylvanians into higher-paying skilled industries, like construction. But some economists suggest lawmakers need to do more if they want to improve the labor market. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania’s Democrats and Republicans have come to a rare detente on at least one economic issue: boosting career and technical education in a bid to get people into higher-paying jobs.

The concept was a centerpiece of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal in February, which was generally well-received by Republicans. And in the first weeks of the legislative session, the Republican-controlled House has already passed — with Democratic support — a good portion of its so-called Workforce Development platform.

But a question remains: how much would the proposals do?

The package of bills House Republicans have put forward is wide-ranging, but it is fundamentally based on the concept that there are good-paying jobs available in the commonwealth, but employers just can’t find strong enough candidates to fill them.

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Twelve proposals have made it through the House so far.

Two aim to increase awareness of trade-oriented careers. One creates a database that lets state students see where college credits will transfer. Others study existing technical education programs, try to make it easier for colleges to start them, create advisory committees on the subject, and insert new communication rules.

Only one has a financial component: it would give tax credits to businesses involved in career and technical education programs.

Labor economist Mark Price said he’s ultimately skeptical that they’ll have much of an impact if the Senate passes them and they become law.

Price works for the Keystone Research Center, a left-leaning organization that defends, among other things, increasing the minimum wage, taxing the commonwealth’s oil and gas industry, and spending more on education.

He said the proposals wouldn’t hurt, but to really address the problem will take more money.

He also contends that the best way to raise poor people’s income is to make community and state colleges cheaper, and to increase the minimum wage. He noted, there are more jobs in service industries than there are in skilled trades.

“The idea that you could raise income significantly in Pennsylvania’s economy if we just trained more electricians and plumbers is not in touch with reality,” he said.

But his biggest gripe with the concept of filling a skill gap is more fundamental: he doesn’t think there is one.

He argues that when the economy grows — as it is now — job openings generally increase overall. But he said if there truly were a labor shortage, there would be more upward pressure on wages for plumbers, electricians or other skilled trades.

Some studies have borne out Price’s observations.

This one, based on job postings aggregated over the course of the Great Recession and economic recovery, found that when more people were out of work in the wake of the 2008 housing market crash, many employers responded by making their job requirements more stringent. The researchers argue that was what led to an appearance of a skills gap.

But as the economy improved and jobs became more plentiful, the study shows job requirements loosened once again.

The Republicans spearheading the effort to route more people into skilled industries are pulling from their own sources of data.

Mike Straub, a spokesman for the House GOP, pointed to a survey of 650 Pennsylvania employers commissioned by the conservative Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

It found that 14 percent of surveyed employers said the biggest issue facing their company was difficulty finding qualified employees to fill open positions. That ranked higher than concerns about things like taxes, the cost of health insurance, and government regulations.

As for focusing on bills that don’t invest much money in education and job training programs?

They’re “important parts of this puzzle,” Straub said, adding that lawmakers are hoping that passing the Workforce Development package early in the session “opens the doors to those larger pieces.”

He said it’s still too early in the state’s annual budgeting process to get into specifics about what those larger pieces might be, or how much money they might route toward skill-building. But he said he thinks it’s “certainly safe to say that we’re examining possibilities within the budget process about better funding for these areas across the board.”

Democrats have been more forthright about their wish lists, which can’t be achieved without Republican cooperation.

Meg Snead, the governor’s secretary of policy and planning, pointed to Wolf’s proposed Statewide Workforce Education and Accountability Program, or SWEAP.

Among other things, it would route $5 million into a program aimed at getting low-income parents job training and education. Fifteen million would go toward childcare; apprenticeships and a technical education program would get $10 million altogether; and salaries would be boosted for some of the commonwealth’s lowest-paid teachers.

The administration has also proposed increasing the state’s $7.25 minimum wage to $12 per hour, then gradually raising it until it hits $15 in 2025.

That, of all their proposals, has raised Republicans’ hackles. They’ve historically been against increasing Pennsylvania’s wage above the federally-mandated minimum, and have broadly said $12, much less $15, is far too high.

Snead called the House’s workforce investment package a “good start,” but said the administration thinks some level of investment is necessary. She added, the minimum wage is also a “significant priority” that should move alongside other workforce bills “on a parallel track.”

Price said for the legislators to make a significant impact on the workforce, they’ll have to talk about spending billions of dollars on things like axing tuition at state and community colleges.

“I think a lot of these decisions are driven by, all right, what can we do with the resources we have?” he said. “That’s why you get bills like this where folks are looking to sort of check what box they can. [This] requires a much more adult conversation than I think anybody over there, at least right now, is willing to have.”

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