Preserve the Pennsylvania Dream

We should employ the children of immigrants

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If you go to www.imaginepittsburgh.com right this moment, you will find more than 22,000 job openings in Pittsburgh. If you go there next month, they’ll still be there. Why? Because we can’t find enough good, willing, talented and trained people to fill these positions.

Well-paid, highly skilled jobs in our region go unfilled every year, because as older workers retire, fewer younger workers are qualified to take their place. Statewide, the number of skilled jobs with workers 45 years of age or older is about 117,000, representing 80 percent of the commonwealth’s skilled jobs/​trades workforce. This means that within 20 years, the bulk of this vital employment sector will no longer be working — and few qualified applicants will be available to replace them.

These are not your grandfather’s skilled trades, either. Today’s plumbers, welders, electricians and machinists must be technologically savvy and their median wages prove it. The average skilled trade pays just shy of $20 an hour per position. In fact, a number of these positions now require the kind of math and reading skills that can be taught only in college: skills like advanced trigonometry, chemistry and technical writing.

Startlingly, approximately 30,000 young, hardworking and ambitious Pennsylvanians are thirsty for the opportunity to fill these positions and help our companies grow. Yet, if current law prevails, they never will have the opportunity.

That’s because this potential workforce comprises high school kids of undocumented immigrant parents, who often have no place else to call home through no fault of their own.

As chairman of the Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Board since 2004 and past chairman of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, I can attest to the fact that Pennsylvania’s economic growth faces a formidable barrier in its lack of skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Already, Pennsylvania lacks qualified skilled workers. With an aging population set to retire within two decades and a dearth of new immigration, the commonwealth’s prospects in a critical sector of its economy appear grim.

One solution, and we need many to fix our workforce shortage crisis, is Senate Bill 713 proposed by Republican state Sen. Lloyd K. Smucker, R-Lancaster County. Dubbed the “Pennsylvania Dream Act,” the bill would provide roughly 30,000 willing and ambitious Pennsylvanians a way to obtain the skills necessary to breathe life back into our skilled workforce.

Let’s be clear: The PA Dream Act does not represent a new idea; competitor states such as Maryland and Texas have passed similar legislation — along with 14 others. It would, however, ensure that students who have attended high school in Pennsylvania for at least two years and earned a diploma remain exempt from paying out-of-state tuition rates at state-owned and state-related colleges and universities.

Out-of-state tuition rates can be 150 percent to 200 percent of the in-state rate, and very often the out-of-state rate is extended to students who have lived in Pennsylvania most of their lives. For many young, undocumented students, these exorbitant costs not only seem unfair, they prove prohibitive. SB 713 could mean the difference between a young Pennsylvanian ultimately contributing to or taking from society.

The correlation between education, economic health and immigration cannot be overlooked. States whose people have higher levels of education and training out-perform most other states in economic growth, strength of entrepreneurship, amenities, quality of schools and state revenues. Pennsylvania should and could be near the top in this category since it trails only California and New York in the number of colleges and universities within its borders. SB 713 would extend educational opportunities and, thus, the potential for economic growth.

Additionally, though they make up a small proportion of the commonwealth’s population, immigrants represent a disproportionate number of its entrepreneurs. Less than 6 percent of Pennsylvania’s residents are foreign-born, yet nearly 10 percent of new small businesses are owned by immigrants.

We also should not overlook the impact a bill like SB 713 could have on our two- and four-year colleges and universities. Most of our thriving community colleges and state universities are tuition driven, meaning they rely on filling seats to balance their budgets. Empty seats, regardless of whether they are empty at in-state or out-of-state tuition rates, deplete the bottom line and weaken the entire system.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the PA Dream Act simply represents the right thing to do. Approximately 30,000 young Pennsylvania residents are children of undocumented immigrants and therefore are undocumented themselves. These young Pennsylvanians are our neighbors, they attend our schools, they patronize our businesses and we often call them our friends. We simply cannot sit idly by and dangle the American dream just beyond their reach.

Passage of the Pennsylvania Dream Act would strengthen the commonwealth economy and give us the peace of mind of knowing we have done the right thing by some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

David J. Malone is president and CEO of Gateway Financial and chair of the Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Board.

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