Guest Editorial: Investing in Public Universities to Address Skills Shortages | Editorial

Pennsylvania businesses of all sizes and in many industries are struggling to find enough skilled workers for a sizable number of open jobs. There were nearly 382,000 jobs open in Pennsylvania in March, 70,000 more than those unemployed. I know that at M&T Bank, we are experiencing a historic number of vacancies, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that our community lacks enough people with the education and training to fill all the jobs.

The problem isn’t new or unique to Pennsylvania, but the pandemic has shed light on the shortage of skilled workers. The talent shortage extends to the biggest industries, from agribusiness, information technology, business and finance to healthcare. These industries drive our economy and drive local communities.

The numbers tell the story. Nearly 60% of jobs in Pennsylvania require some level of higher education, but only about 51% of the workforce have it.

The talent gap has widened as funding for public universities has fallen behind. Today, Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the nation for investment in four-year public universities like the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Annual government funding has decreased by 35% ($252 million) since 2000-2001, after adjusting for inflation.

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If Pennsylvania is to bolster our workforce with the talented, skilled people that employers need, it is imperative that the legislature reinvest in our state system universities.

I am proud to sit on the board of directors of the foundation which financially supports 90,000 students from PASSHE universities. Universities have campuses across the state that are solely focused on providing affordable education to low- and middle-income students, offering students from our big cities to rural communities a career path to learn and build their way into the middle class and pursue the American Dream.

These exciting opportunities are life-changing for students, with more than 70% of state system graduates remaining in Pennsylvania. They get good jobs, put down roots in their communities, and build families and meaningful lives here. This is one of the reasons the state university system provides $4 billion in economic impact to the state.

As Regional Director of ARC at M&T Bank, I am also proud that our universities are making great strides to serve more diverse students. Nearly a quarter of enrolled students are minorities and a record 20% are adults. Today, three out of four minority graduates from low-income families move up to higher-income status and earn almost as much as students from high-income families. This is a tremendous achievement that also creates a more diverse pool of potential employees for Pennsylvania businesses.

M&T Bank has long supported the PASSHE Foundation by providing scholarship funds for low- and middle-income freshmen so that they can start their higher education journey with financial assistance. The bank has also committed $50,000 to support emergency aid for students so they can continue their academic journey and has built an endowed scholarship so rising juniors and seniors can complete their journey.

Our state system universities are also being redesigned to provide more value to students by ensuring they are ready for high-demand jobs. Last year, universities awarded nearly 24,000 degrees and certificates in high-growth fields like STEM, health, business and education, all critical to addressing labor shortages. This revamp provides students with higher earning power and helps them stay engaged in continuing education to help workers upskill or retrain. Our public universities are an engine of workforce development and now the state must invest in students and in our economy.

In April, the state system’s Board of Governors voted to freeze tuition fees for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year, despite inflation fears. The vote was a leap of faith in the General Assembly that lawmakers would fulfill their part of the system’s ambitious overhaul by reinvesting in universities.

To offset the need for a tuition increase, the system is asking the state for $550 million, a $75 million increase, as well as $201 million in direct student aid to reduce costs for students and families, and at least $75 million. of the remaining $150 million in federal funding, the General Assembly and the Governor have pledged to continue the vigorous transformation of public universities.

I urge the legislator to provide the funding. The significance of this funding request demonstrates the urgency of this moment for universities in the state system and our workforce. Public higher education is the most cost-effective way to address our labor shortages by preparing thousands of low- and middle-income students and creating a pool of well-educated and skilled workers. Let’s educate our students in Pennsylvania to stay in Pennsylvania…the future of our businesses and the Pennsylvania economy depends on it.

Gail M. D’Angelo is Senior Vice President and ARC Regional Manager for Pennsylvania at M&T Bank.

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