A day after Democratic President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, Seth Harris, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, went to Community College of Allegheny County's Oakdale campus to talk about a signature piece of his boss's speech: manufacturing.
Local officials from the county and administrators from the community college showed off the classrooms of CCAC's West Hills Center, including the welding class where Doug Kinsey, an unemployed art teacher, was retraining.
Mr. Kinsey, 63, of Coraopolis, is an artist who works mostly in charcoal, but this semester he is adding welding to his skill set. He said he needs a job and the semester-long program in welding includes pipe welding, his way of getting in on the Marcellus Shale gas natural boom.
In September, CCAC received $2.6 million from the U.S. Department of Labor as its portion of a $20 million grant to 14 community colleges in the state for Trade Adjustment Assistance worker retraining.
The CCAC portion was focused on advanced manufacturing, particularly advanced mechatronics/integrated systems technology, which means understanding how the systems of a manufacturing plant go together in terms of hydraulics, electrical systems and mechanical systems.
When students walk into the laboratory for that class they are greeted by an array of unfamiliar equipment.
"We tell them how difficult it is going to be and how much commitment it is going to take," said Paul Blackford, an instructor in the program. But the instructors are patient, he said, and students work at their own pace until they understand all of the systems they need to know.
"By the time we're done, they're really, really excited," he said.
"Once they get in, they realize how interesting it is," said Sylvia Elsayed, who administers the grant.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said that a generation ago there wasn't a family in the county that was not, in some way, connected to the steel mills.
Now, he said, just about every family in the county has been touched by CCAC. The community college is a first step in higher education for many people who are coming out of high school, he said, but it also serves college graduates who need to refine skills and people who have been in the workforce for years and need to update their training.
"It's really about jobs. It's really about training and getting the jobs back," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
The federal job training grants are designed to help American workers gain the skills they need to bring jobs back to the U.S. It is part of the program that Mr. Obama called for in his State if the Union address.
"We need to have a rational tax policy. Subsidizing outsourcing American jobs is not good economic policy," Mr. Harris, the deputy secretary, said in an interview before heading to CCAC.
The community college campus in Oakdale also has a laboratory to teach heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and an entire garage focused on auto repair.
The students in the auto program mostly leave the program and walk right into jobs, according to Jason Nadzam, who teaches the students in the General Motors certification program. "If they want a job, they get a job," he said.
In the address, Mr. Obama said "I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can't find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that, openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It's inexcusable. And we know how to fix it."
He asked Congress to provide more funding to community colleges.
"Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job," the president urged.
Ann Belser: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699. First Published January 26, 2012 5:00 AM