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SWPA Commission Applies Strong Track Record of Leading Workforce Development Programs

By Todd Miller

More than 7,500 people have attended two Robotics Day events under the Expanded Pathways to New Economy Careers initiatives. When it comes to workforce development (upskilling) related to the Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) – the marquee initiative of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s American Rescue Plan, which aims to boost economic recovery from the pandemic and rebuild American communities – the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) is leading the way in the Pittsburgh region. 

The $24.8 million grant allows SPC and its regional partners to establish a highly coordinated, regional upskilling system serving both robotics technology developers and adopters with various training options outside of traditional four-year and advanced degrees that evolve based on industry needs, especially the availability of talent. 

“Through this project, regional partners intend to expand their training and placement opportunities through partnerships among educational institutions, labor and industry creating a vibrant robotics and autonomy career ecosystem with clear pathways to employment,” says Jennifer Lasser, SPC’s Director of Workforce and Economic Development. “The grant will also provide wraparound services for participants and their families to create a coordinated system that will evolve with the rapidly changing talent needs of the southwestern Pennsylvania region.”

The SPC was chosen to fulfill this role because it is the region's metropolitan planning organization, as well as its economic development district and local development district regarding the administration of federal funds. SPC has a depth and breadth of experience successfully administering large-scale grants and was part of the BBBRC process from the outset of discussions through grant technical assistance and is now active with implementation.

Jennifer Lasser is SPC’s Director of Workforce and Economic Development.With the New Economy Collaborative, an 11-county coalition of local governments, workforce and economic development organizations, labor, nonprofit and university partners advancing the region’s robotics and automation cluster through partnerships with public, private and philanthropic organizations being one of 21 winners of the BBBRC, the SPC is the fiscal administrator of the project supporting 18 sub-awarded grantees representing workforce boards, community colleges, labor, robotics ecosystem builders and others.

According to Lasser, who has more than 15 years of experience in the fields of workforce development and economic development, and has been with the SPC for nearly five years, “The objectives of this grant are to expand training and placement opportunities, build a vibrant and robust robotics ecosystem, remove barriers to employment, work with regional business, be responsive to those needs, and ultimately train workers and retain them in the southwestern Pennsylvania region.”

The organizations with which SPC is partnering on the workforce development aspect of the BBBRC are the Allegheny Conference on Community Development; Butler County Community College; Community College of Allegheny County; Community College of Beaver County; Westmoreland County Community College; Partners4Work; Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board; Tri-County Workforce Investment Board; Westmoreland-Fayette Workforce Investment Board; Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania State University New Kensington, Beaver, and Greater Allegheny branch campuses; Robert Morris University; Pittsburgh Technical College; UMWA Career Centers; Carnegie Mellon University; University of Pittsburgh; BotsIQ; and Pittsburgh Robotics Network (PRN).

In addition to managing the workforce development aspect of the BBBRC, the SPC is involved in other economic development programs. Most significantly, the organization has been designated by the U.S. Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) as the Local Development District (LDD) to help communities and individual workers transition from industrial and mining jobs to ones in the technology sector. 

The SPC and the county and municipal planning organizations it counts among its members play a lead role in identifying and prioritizing the needs of local communities to foster economic development, target and meet the most pressing needs, and build community cohesion and leadership. Five years ago, the organization combined the Long Range Transportation Plan and Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) into one plan called Smart Moves for a Changing Region.

Recent Developments

Sensing the desire of students and experienced workers alike to pursue employment in the robotics sector, and the needs of employers to fill positions, the SPC and its partners in the upskilling portion of the BBBRC initiative have been quick to respond.

To provide entry points to careers in the robotics sector outside of traditional four-year degree programs, last September, Carnegie Mellon’s Block Center for Technology and Society awarded 11 educational partners financial support for nine skills-based training programs. With special emphasis on research and teaching, these programs seek to leverage collaboration between educators and businesses to develop a workforce that meets the growing labor demands of the robotics sector.

Last October, the Future Readiness Academy at Penn State New Kensington held its inaugural Education Vanguard Conference. Building upon the success of a Faculty Academy Workshop held six months earlier, the event brought educators together to address the impact of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) on students, the classroom and industry to inform curriculum-related decisions and cultivate a workforce that is prepared, upon graduation, to meet the needs of businesses in the robotics, AI and AR sectors.

Measuring Progress

To determine the effectiveness of the SPC-led efforts, milestones are in place. They relate to the training of thousands of workers, introducing thousands of workers to the robotics industry so they can make mid-career changes, helping students secure pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships, and working with individuals affected by the downturn in coal mining and re-training them to pursue careers in robotics.

Lasser notes that SPC is working toward many of those milestones by collaborating with the Pittsburgh Robotics Network (PRN), an organization that represents the companies and leaders making up the Pittsburgh robotics ecosystem. PRN is anchored by Carnegie Mellon University and driven by more than 100 robotics organizations, including worldwide leaders in autonomous vehicle development.  PRN’s mission is to accelerate the adoption of robotic solutions by bridging this large and dynamic community with the world. 

“Through this project, regional partners intend to expand their training and placement opportunities through partnerships among educational institutions, labor and industry, creating a vibrant robotics and autonomy career ecosystem with clear pathways to employment,” says Jennifer Lasser, SPC’s Director of Workforce and Economic Development.

Through those joint efforts, more than 7,500 individuals have attended a pair of PRN-hosted Robotics Day events under the Expanded Pathways to New Economy Careers initiatives. Many of those attendees have begun to engage in robotics training and other tech-focused training at community colleges and Workforce
Investment Boards have initiated on-the-job training with regional employers. The collaboration has also led to the provision of support services to help experienced workers transition to new jobs in the robotics sector. 

To determine the effectiveness of SPC’s efforts, the organization is tracking multiple data points, such as jobs created, job placements, scholarships offered, scholarships received, number of workers trained, number of workers placed in jobs and demographic data on the extent to which workers from rural and urban areas are benefiting from robotics-focused workforce training.

Lasser and her team, along with partners at PRN and the New Economy Collaborative, will then determine, within the next year, which aspects of the initiative have been successful and which ones need to be modified to help ensure future success.

Lasser is optimistic about the way forward because “this region has all the ingredients, including education and partnerships, to help businesses connect to workers, train students and retain our talent.”