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Shapiro rolls out jobs plan in Pittsburgh visit

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro details his jobs plan at the IBEW Local #5 union hall on Pittsburgh's South Side
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro details his jobs plan at the IBEW Local #5 union hall on Pittsburgh's South Side.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro unveiled a plan Thursday to address what he called “seismic shifts in our workforce” following the coronavirus pandemic. It is a vision focused on workers who have been left out in the search for professional credentials.

Speaking at a South Side union electrical workers training facility, Shapiro said that as the pandemic hit, many workers had "pause[d] to consider their future and how they fit into the workforce." Some retired early or started new businesses, while others struggled to get training as schools went online-only.

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“Too many employers are left without enough employees to do the jobs necessary today — and more concerning for us, to be able to do the jobs of tomorrow,” Shapiro said.

He offered a multipart plan to address that shortfall, one that begins with providing expanded grants for workforce training and trying to reverse a years-long decline in state support for vocational education.

We’ll direct the State Board of Education to bake career and technical training right into the [school] curriculum so that more Pennsylvanians have the opportunity to choose the path that is right for them,” he said. And he pledged that “My administration will make sure that unions … can train more apprentices with more resources.”

That’s familiar territory for Democrats — almost as familiar as the union hall itself, a landmark for Shapiro and other Democrats campaigning in the city.

But Shapiro also took a fresh page from the playbook of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. Earlier this year, the state announced it would scale back its reliance on college degrees as prerequisities for thousands of state jobs. The state estimates that alternative credentials — such as on-the-job experience, technical training or military service — could be used to qualify an employee for roughly half of the positions for which it hires. It so far has dropped a four-year degree requirement for 300 open positions.

Similarly, Shapiro said, “As governor, I will eliminate the four-year degree requirement for thousands of state government jobs.” Noting that more than half of Pennsylvania workers did not have four-year degrees, Shapiro said, “That requirement locks too many qualified workers out of good jobs serving the commonwealth.”

Shapiro also proposed another change to credentials in the private sector: eliminating licensing fees in professions that require them.

“Nobody should be prevented from becoming the next barber, the next social worker, the next electrician, simply because they can't afford a licensing fee,” he said.

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In recent years, there have been concerns across the ideological spectrum about whether fees and other licensing requirements limit access to opportunities, even as they can maintain professional standards. Some states have taken steps to abandon the requirements entirely for jobs in lower-stakes professions such as cosmetology. Shapiro’s proposal limits its focus to the cost of fees themselves, though his plan also includes a pledge to streamline the state licensing approval process to 14 days.

Shapiro made his remarks after touring classrooms where union apprentices were being trained. “I want you guys in the high schools,” he told Training Director Paul Reinert shortly before disclosing that he had paid off his school loans only this month.

Shapiro was joined on the visit with the man he hopes Democratic voters will select as his running mate next month: state Rep. Austin Davis.

Davis, of McKeesport, said a number of friends he’d grown up with lacked formal professional training but had been able to build a life and support their families.

“Just because someone lacks a credential,” Davis said, “doesn't mean they lack the ability to do a job well.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.