Educators asked to make future students more job-ready

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Penn United Technologies, a Butler County precision tools company, has 100 job openings. But company officials said they can't fill them because they can't find candidates with the proper technical skills.

"We'd like job-ready employees," said David Frengel, who directs government affairs for the company.

He made his remarks during a meeting Downtown Thursday of Gov. Tom Corbett's Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education.

The commission -- which includes university administrators, business leaders and students -- is tasked with developing a long-term plan for making higher education in Pennsylvania more accessible, affordable and effective at creating employable graduates, said Rob Wonderling, the CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. He was appointed to lead the 31 commission members.

The governor created the advisory commission in February when he presented his budget proposal, which includes cuts to higher education.

The commission is gathering input from administrators, employers, students and parents at four public meetings around the state. The group is expected to issue a report in early November.

Seven commission members attended Thursday's meeting at the office of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Mr. Wonderling urged attendees to focus on longer-term issues rather than the cuts to higher education now being debated in Harrisburg.

Still, the meeting had a decidedly monetary focus, whether the topic was the importance of universities in stimulating the economy or the general need for increased public funding for higher education.

"We want to leverage the local economic engine that is our postsecondary education system," Mr. Wonderling said.

University administrators argued that leveraging that engine would require money.

Gregory Dell'Omo, president of Robert Morris University, said Pittsburgh's economic recovery was due in part to a thriving higher education community. He argued that state government should provide more funding to universities rather than less.

Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Mark Nordenberg, a member of the commission, said the state trend toward underfunding higher education would harm not only colleges and universities but also the state economy.

"Pennsylvania can neither remain competitive in the innovation economy nor meet its obligation to the next generation of citizens and workers unless this trend is reversed," he said.

Chris Allison, a former CEO of a technology company who now teaches at Allegheny College, agreed with Mr. Frengel that the state needs more technical education and job-ready students.

"We've de-valued the tradesperson," Mr. Allison said, noting that students should be encouraged to choose a career earlier in their education, a model he said has worked in Germany.

The debate over whether the state should fund public universities directly or whether state aid should follow students wherever they attend also came up at the meeting.

Despite his role as head of a private university, Carnegie Mellon University president Jared Cohon said that giving state aid to students directly instead of state-related institutions is a "terrible idea." Mr. Cohon said such a plan ignored the idea of education as a public good.

How the issues raised Thursday will play into the commission's report is unclear.

Mr. Wonderling said the report would likely include both long-term structural suggestions and short-term practical advice for higher education.

education

Marcus Schwarz: mschwarz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964. First Published June 15, 2012 12:00 AM


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