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How Local Companies Are Addressing the Labor Shortage



Correspondent, Johnstown Magazine

With safety glasses firmly in place, 43 Forest Hills High School students recently hit the floors of Gap Vax. The tour is part of the Challenge Program’s Students in the Workplace initiative.

“We really want them to know there are so many options available,” says Debbie Cover, HR Manager at GapVax. “We have on-the-job training, job shadowing, work study and summer positions available. Something for those going to college but also for those planning to enter directly into a career.”

Chances are many of these students and their families have driven by GapVax numerous times not aware of the company’s successful history and the many opportunities inside.

Owner Gary Poborsky started in the industry after purchasing a pumper truck to help with cleanup from the 1977 Johnstown Flood. Since then, GapVax has grown to be the leading producer of industrial and municipal vacuum trucks. Headquartered on Central Avenue in Johnstown, GapVax employs more than 125 people with a second location in Texas.

Students on the tour got to see all aspects of the company from welding and painting to engineering and graphic design. They each left with a water bottle. Tucked inside was a flyer with a QR code directing students, and perhaps their parents, to a listing of job opportunities at GapVax.

 The timing for programs like this could not be better. A recent study by Harvard Business Review projects nearly 1.4 million jobs will be available to workers without college degrees in the next five years.

It’s a growing trend recently acknowledged by Pennsylvania’s newest governor. Just one day after being sworn into office, Governor Josh Shapiro signed legislation to eliminate a four-year college degree requirement for most state jobs. It was something he had campaigned on and something he brought to the forefront during his inaugural address.

“We’re sending a clear message to our workers, whether you went to college or gained experience through work, on-the-job training or an apprenticeship, we value what you bring to the table, and we want you here,” Governor Shapiro had said.  

Thomas Automotive is another local company putting unique programming in place to introduce local high school students to potential job opportunities. Thomas had summer employment, job shadowing and a co-op work experience with the help of CareerLink.

“During their co-op experience we start them in one area like reconditioning but then we like to give them experience in at least two or maybe three additional parts of the business,” says Keith Kuckenbrod, Talent Resources Manager at Thomas.

The co-op work experience is working well for 17-year-old Damian Chiodo of Westmont. Damian spends the first part of his day in the classroom but then heads to Thomas Automotive in the afternoon to work reconditioning cars.

“I always had an interest in detailing cars,” says Damian. “Now I will have the chance to learn other skills as well and see what I like and what options are available.” Damian also appreciates the CareerLink classes that come with the program, things like financial management and time management that will help him down the road no matter what career path he ultimately chooses.

“Damian is good with people and a hard worker,” says Ken Salem, Vice President of Organizational Development for Thomas. “Reconditioning is traditionally an entry level position, but we have master technicians that work for us that can make $80,000 a year. We have salespeople that can make a minimum of $40,000 or over $100,000 with or without a college degree or specific certification so that’s why we think it is important for kids like Damian to look at a variety of things and learn what job opportunities exist in the market.”

Thomas Automotive also offers a Technician Training Scholarship for students interested in becoming automotive technicians. The scholarship pays $1000 and another $2500 to cover tools. The one-year program then pairs students up with a master mentor technician. 

Recently Thomas Automotive partnered with Penn Highlands Community College giving employees discounted tuition on courses designed to develop business and management skills.

“We set up a Thomas business certificate, handpicking classes we thought would complement our positions and help prepare employees for career advancement at Thomas,” says Salem. “We will pay for these classes and then the employee, if interested, can continue on to get their associates degree in business management.”

Leaders at Thomas know by educating and elevating their employees some may find new career paths and perhaps a desire to move on, but they are quick to point out that they are okay with that because it is better for the person and ultimately good for our community.

“We know we have great jobs available, and we know other companies like us that are really committed to having people stay in the area and thrive, and that’s great,” says Salem.

One of the early leaders in showing students a career path is Martin Baker America. Headquartered in Richland, the company employees 150 people, who manufacture parts for ejection seats. They are proud of saving 7,960 lives (and counting) with those ejection seats and proud of the work they have underway to help local students succeed. 

“It’s not about finding someone to work,” says Brian Galiote, manager of workforce development at Martin Baker. “It’s about lifting people up and improving lives.”

For Martin Baker this philosophy, based on Servant Leadership, has led them to a close working relationship with Johnstown High School students. Last year they began a formal 500-hour Summer Apprentice Program for students. The program may increase the potential pipeline of future skilled employees but, more importantly to Martin Baker, it lets local students know they are wanted and appreciated.

“We want kids to stay here in our community and programs like these are helping,” says Barb Grandinetti, Executive Director of the Challenge Program. “We want them to be successful, own a home, raise a family, go on vacation.” 

For some that path to success means going to college, for others it means finding a good paying, family sustaining job at a company where they are appreciated and have the opportunity to thrive.   

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