Jerry Oleksiak’s frenetic itinerary included a Thursday pilgrimage to Pittsburgh, a Friday morning stopover in Speers and a journey to Johnstown in the early afternoon.
Pennsylvania’s Labor & Industry secretary was being laborious.
Oleksiak arrived in Speers bright and early – make that drippy and early – for a tour of Mon Valley Career & Technology Center. The school, visible from Interstate 70, offers career-enhancement programs for high school students as well as adults. It delivered an eye-opening experience for the secretary Friday morning.
“I’m impressed with the commitment and enthusiasm of the students and the commitment of the staff,” Oleksiak said. “And it’s not just the skills. They work across departments, work together, do what is needed. This commitment is reflective of what the governor (Tom Wolf) wants to do to build a workforce in the 21st century.”
The secretary was in the Valley to meet with students and their instructors, and to promote two hardy forms of alphabet soup: SWEAP – Wolf’s Statewide Workforce, Education and Accountability Program – which is designed to expand education and job training for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).
Neil Henehan, the center’s director, led a group of about 12 on a tour of half of MVCTC’s 14 student programs. They entered work spaces where teens were eagerly working in diverse areas, from Automotive Mechanic Technology to Culinary Arts and Cosmetology.
“The STEM world lives and breathes in everything we do here,” said Henehan, a dynamo of positivity who strives to keep students engaged and enthusiastic.
“When kids come through the door,” he added, “we want that to be the best part of their day. Kids who are engaged want to do well and don’t want to miss school.”
The tour lasted a lively 70 minutes and began near the school entrance, with a retro car called “Greased Lightning” that students built in four days. It also featured further accomplished auto work in the Mechanic Tech area, under the auspices of instructor Chris Mance; a spirited bots demonstration; fabulous pulled pork and pastries in Culinary Arts; medical monitoring, including blood pressure readings, in Health Occupations; and a park bench constructed and dedicated to a fellow student.
Bots IQ may have been the most entertaining stop. Instructor Vinnie DeStefano and students Jake Popielarczyk (Charleroi Area) and Joey Sullivan (Monessen) discussed the intricacies of what they do before giving way to a bots battle that, thankfully, was confined to a sturdy cage. The winning device – literally – tore up the competition, closing out with the destruction of a metal stool.
“The kids have to diagnose fast and repair fast,” Henehan said. “It’s kind of like NASCAR and it’s all related to STEM.”
MVCTC, by the way, will have two bots in a national-championship event next Friday and Saturday at California University of Pennsylvania.
Students also handcrafted the smoker in which the pulled pork was cooked – very patiently. It took 10 hours.
“We’ve smoked salmon in it. That was like candy,” Henehan said.
He ended the tour with a showing of the bench dedicated to Kyle Hook, a Bentworth School District resident and student in the auto tech area at MVCTC. Hook was 18 when he died in an auto accident 13 months ago on Carlton Drive in Somerset Township. The bench is to be placed in a Bentleyville park.
The presentation did, indeed, impress the Labor & Industry secretary. As he walked toward his car in the school lot, preparing for his commute to Johnstown, Oleksiak smiled.
“We are committed in Harrisburg to build a workforce and are focused on what we need to do to create opportunities for students and for adults who need to update their skills or be retrained. It does not depend on what your party is. Workforce is not a partisan issue.”