Career programs get a major boost

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HOUSTON – Western Area Career & Technology Center is getting a generous boost. So is the oil and gas industry.


Energy giant Chevron and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation are contributing grants totaling nearly $400,000 to the school, according to an annoucement Thursday at the WACTC campus in Chartiers Township. The funds are earmarked for programs that will prepare students for sustainable careers in oil and gas, a field that is booming in the Marcellus Shale region.


“This is a great partnership,” said Dennis McCarthy, director of WACTC.


The funds – $280,000 from the Benedum Foundation, $119,600 from Chevron – will go toward enhancing three manufacturing-related programs: welding, machining and mechatronics.


“Chevron wants to help develop programs that teach skills needed for jobs,” said Trip Oliver, manager of policy, government and public affairs at the Moon Township-based company.


“This is an important partnership that will get attention,” said Jim Denova, vice president of the Benedum Foundation, which is based in Pittsburgh and provides grants aimed at human development in Southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia.


It is an uncommon partnership – of corporate, philanthropic and educational entities – but one intended to better prepare students for viable vocations and strengthen the school’s offerings. WACTC wants to become an accredited privately licensed technical institute that offers degree programs as well as certificate/diploma programs.


“When I was talking to Dennis, he said, ‘We’re going to start a college,’” Denova said, chuckling, referring to McCarthy. “We want a secondary education and a post-graduate education to be a seamless pathway to an associate’s degree.”


Post-graduate education was a frequently used phrase Thursday, and it wasn’t always in the context of a bachelor’s degree. In fact, it rarely was.


The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a regional economic development group headquartered in Pittsburgh, conducted a study of occupations that was often cited Thursday.


“We found 14 occupations that were in demand, but only four required a four-year degree,” said Laura Fisher, senior vice president of special projects. She said the results “will help students (choose) better post-graduate options,” which may not include pursuit of an expensive bachelor’s.


“Students with traditional four-year degrees may not get a job in their field,” Fisher said. “Why do that when there are so many other jobs available?”


State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, echoed that sentiment.


“Educators get it and students get it,” he said. “The problem is parents. They want their children to have something better than they have. But there’s not a problem with our kids learning how to use their hands and making good money.


“Plumbers can make $100 an hour. That’s better than studying for four years, then getting a job for $8.50 an hour flipping burgers.”


College remains a viable alternative following high school, but career and technical schools are gaining prominence and becoming more attractive to those who believe they’ll have a better chance at finding a job in a field for which they are trained – and one that also pays well.


“For years, we were ignored, looked at as a dumping ground,” McCarthy said. “But we’re not looked at that way now.”


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