Without some unity between business and education, Fayette County's economic future may be very bleak, according to a local economic development group.
"We as a community have a big problem. Every employer we meet with tells us he is having a hard time finding people to fill his jobs,'' said Mike Krajovic, Fay-Penn Economic Development Council president.
Many of the positions in which there are openings are engineering jobs and those related to natural gas exploration and extraction.
Fay-Penn's executive board identified what it sees as problems ranging from a lack of personal accountability to state funding cuts to duplicative efforts by local schools to provide technical training as stumbling blocks to present and future economic development.
At its quarterly board meeting Friday at Uniontown Country Club, Fay-Penn reviewed its work so far in trying to bring together education and business to solve the problem.
Ron Sheba, Fay-Penn education and workforce development manager, explained forums will be held in upcoming months focusing on the need for skill sets and early childhood education.
"However, the impact of state budget cuts could be devastating to Fayette County. We have some of the poorest school districts in the state. We have students with the greatest need who will now have the least amount of funds,'' he said.
Sheba said a recent survey on the number of students in Fayette County who complete their 12-year public education shows levels lower than neighboring Westmoreland County. Among Fayette's school districts, Frazier had the highest percentage of students graduating from high school at 84.26 percent, while the lowest was Brownsville Area School District with 48.97 percent. By comparison, the highest level in Westmoreland County was 97.75 percent in Franklin Regional School District and the lowest was 53.75 percent in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.
Sheba said it is the first time the four-year "cohort method" was used in school districts in the state to determine a more precise measurement of graduation rates.
However, school officials claim that the percentages calculated by the state Department of Education are flawed and are currently gathering additional data they say will increase their percentages.
A block grant that helped some school districts turn part-time kindergarten programs into full-time ones also is marked for cuts in Gov. Tom Corbett's budget, Sheba added.
"Economic development is tied to the education system. There will be a big void in skill sets when the baby boomers start to retire. The input into how to solve these problems needs to be industry-driven and researched,'' Sheba said.
"The problem is not a lack of jobs but education,'' Krajovic said.
"We will have a lot of people retiring. And we have a huge education problem and, as much as we talk about it, it continues,'' he said.
Fay-Penn members have visited school districts, attending school board meeting where they have voiced their concerns. Some of the school board members accepted the comments while others were offended, stating their curriculum is sufficient to meet the needs of the community, according to Steve Neubauer, Fay-Penn board chairman. Neubauer added public forums need to be held to bring the discussion to the community.
"We know we have a disconnect between the skills students graduate with and the needs of employers. We have tried to get everyone on the same page. It has, at times, been painful,'' Neubauer added.
"There are good-paying jobs here now. There are about 400 available right now. This is not an attack on anybody. But the number one issue focuses on the workforce,'' Neubauer said.
"We (business community) have to get involved. It isn't fun but it is vital,'' he added.
Dennis Noonan, vice president of sales and marketing at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington, one of the county's largest employers, said the resort has been unable to find people locally to fill some of its jobs.
"We have had to bring people in from other countries,'' he said.
Fay-Penn board member Dan Gearing said personal accountability is a problem with some young people and adults.
"We have a whole generation that needs to get out of bed. They need to learn to be accountable. That's the problem we have in this community,'' Gearing said.
"We have gone to those meetings at the school districts and some people were offended. But you need people in the business community to go to those educators and say here's the people we need,'' said Todd Casteel, another board member.
"We have to appeal to school districts to try to come together. This (message) has to be resounded over and over again,'' Casteel added.
"There are some employers who can't fill jobs paying $18 to $20 an hour,'' he said.
Jim Conway, representing state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union Township, said the state representative is looking at legislation to form a countywide school district.
"Part of that would be a study looking at the truancy problem. Parents and children have to learn to be accountable. We are trying to get a hold on this and get it going in the right direction,'' Conway said.
He invited business people to contact Mahoney. Conway said work on the study of school district consolidation should begin next month...