Opinion: Online schools, public-private partnerships can address Pa. construction worker shortage

Originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal – December 19, 2019

The average age of a Pennsylvania construction worker beats the national average by three years, and if we don’t get a new generation of workers interested in and prepared for the positions retiring workers will soon vacate, the industry – and certainly our state’s economy – will take a serious hit.

Avoiding that fate starts with better preparing today’s students for their future careers. That means helping them understand the immense opportunity the industry holds, helping those interested see and experience it through public-private partnerships, and keeping available the online schools that can provide broader accesses to these opportunities. 

Not enough young people realize that the skilled trades are a pathway to a better life. Clearly, this mindset is the first thing that needs to change. It’s simply not the case that every kid needs to go to college to be successful. Only some trades require a degree beyond high school, and the average annual salary of a Pennsylvanian in the construction and extraction industry is $53,070. 

High-paying, high-growth jobs like these aren’t hard to come by either, in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Eighty-one percent of U.S. contractors have had to ask their staff more work,” while 49% have had to turn down projects due to a shortage of skilled workers. There’s no doubt about it, the demand for more skilled workers is there.

Once students see the reality of this situation, we have to help them also see exactly what “a day in the life” would look like. Exploratory courses and pathways of industryspecific career technical education (CTE) classes can do this, but the best way for educators to help students really know whether they’ll enjoy the work they set out to do is to connect them with opportunities for work-based learning. 

Work-based learning, often offered through public-private partnerships, can come in the form of internships, externships, apprenticeships or job shadow experiences. These mutually beneficial experiences validate students’ interest in their intended profession, begin equipping them with hands-on skills and, upon program completion, produce the strong, capable job candidates today’s employers are seeking. 

Securing public-private partnerships and setting up programs that work with students’ schedules can be challenging for some smaller, resource-limited districts. Online education is equipped to address this issue, using its increased flexibility to present students with a wide variety of on-the-job opportunities.

For starters, virtual schools already have the digital tools, especially video conferencing, through which industry partners can be conveniently accessed. And in terms of picking and choosing which ones to work with, virtual schools aren’t limited to businesses within a certain proximity.
In addition, the self-paced nature of online schools allows them to more easily to design programs that act in everyone’s best interests. If industry partners can only have students on-site on certain days, online learners can work ahead to make those accommodations – and learn valuable time-management skills in the process.

That’s what we’ve been able to offer construction-inclined students, as part of a recent partnership with Associated Builders and Contractors Keystone in Manheim. There, our students are participating in a 65-hour apprenticeship spread across 13 Fridays, where they’re learning AutoCAD, how to rig, how to operate a skidsteer and a ton of other skills, all while working to receive their Department of Labor OSHA card. 

These kinds of partners help us execute on our common goal – helping our kids succeed and solving our state’s construction industry labor shortage. Now, it’s time we multiply that progress on a much larger scale, a move that will require Pennsylvanians to preserve and protect our state’s online schools. 

Barry King is director of Career & Technical Education at the Insight Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, powered by K12, Inc.

To learn more about Insight Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, visit https://pa.insightschools.net/

KEYWORDS: Inspiring Educators

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