Wearing a black mask and orange hard hat, 18-year-old Kyle Wieland concentrated on the bricks he was laying to build a house in Oley Township.

Kyle was glad to be gaining experience in a masonry program at the Berks County Career & Technology Center that should prepare him for a job that pays pretty well.

“I wasn’t sure I would get into this program,” Kyle said while at the house, a block away from the center's east campus on Friedensburg Road. “I am so happy I got in. My dad is a handyman.”

Wieland, a Boyertown High School senior, was working side by side with his instructor Michael Kern recently learning to build an energy efficient house, earning a certificate in masonry that is likely to result in a job paying $30 to $35 an hour.

As the clean energy business begins to recover from the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is expecting a surge in clean construction jobs, and Wieland’s masonry training includes learning about the newest clean building techniques.

The jobs include technicians who install and create heating and air-conditioning systems, pipefitters, installers of solar panels and energy consultants, according to DEP’s 2021 Pennsylvania Clean Energy Industry Workforce Development Needs Assessment and Gap Analysis Report.

“As Pennsylvania focuses on economic recovery and growth, the clean energy sector will undoubtedly help move Pennsylvania forward because this area is rife with opportunities for employees and employers alike,’’ DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a press release when releasing the report. “This demand is only going to keep growing, and it will need a strong workforce.”

'Multiple jobs available'

The report also revealed the industry has recruiting challenges due to a small pool of applicants trained to fill the positions.

The report singled out three schools in Berks County as being excellent in providing educational opportunities with high salaries for high school students and graduates entering the workforce in advanced manufacturing jobs pertaining to clean energy.

They are Berks Career & Technology Center, with campuses in Oley Township and Leesport; Muhlenberg Career & Technology Center; and Reading Area Community College.

BCTC’s East and West campuses are projected to have 1,900 students from 16 Berks school districts to start  2021-22.

That is the highest projected enrollment in the centers’ history, said Jessica Werner, marketing coordinator for BCTC. The school is continuing to accept students over the summer.

The students spend a half-day at the technology centers and a half-day at their respective high schools. The school also provides day and evening adult career training programs for 500 adults.

Dr. James Kraft, BCTC executive director who is retiring in July, said the students are learning the basic skills and are being introduced to new technologies, including energy efficient building materials, electric cars, wind turbines and solar power.

The students are prepared to get jobs right out of high school or continue to obtain associate degrees or go to four-year colleges.

“There are always multiple jobs available for our students,” Kraft said.

At the site recently, Kern said new houses are built with improved insulation and energy efficient heat and air conditioning.

The construction materials do not spray dust that could cause silicosis, a lung disease.

Jeffrey Miller, a carpentry instructor who was mentoring the students at the house, said the students participate in internships and at East Penn Manufacturing Co. Inc., Carpenter Technology and many other manufacturers.

He said the carpentry program is always filled and has a significant waiting list.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority,” Miller said as the students were placing a rubber material on the wood panels to prevent moisture from getting into the house. “Our students are trained to go out in the field.”

Aden Reich, 17, an 11th grader at Oley Valley High School, said he became interested in carpentry from helping his dad work around his house.

“I am learning how to set walls and doors,” he said as the morning session was winding down.

'See a future' 

Eric Kahler, administrative director of Reading Muhlenberg Career & Technology Center, said there is a need for employees to learn up-to-date skills, many of which require licenses, to work in the clean energy field to manufacture and install heating and air-conditioning systems, electric batteries and more.

Reading Muhlenberg provides a half-day of learning job skills five days a week for students in 10th through 12th grades from the Reading and Muhlenberg school districts.

Kahler said there is a need for technicians, noting that many in the field today are at retirement age.

“We are seeing growing demands for plumbers, and heating and air conditioning installers,” he said. “We offer students licenses on many levels. There are paid internships. The students see a future.”

Kahler said solar energy, wind turbines, electric and hybrid vehicles are incorporated into the programs.

There are an estimated 1,500 students enrolled in the center.

Kahler said the students are always learning updated technology, noting that retraining and recertification are required by some employers.

Many shoes to fill

Dan Fogarty, chief operating officer of the Berks County Workforce Development Board, said advanced manufacturing jobs, which include the clean energy sector, are in high demand.

Fogarty said the same traditional skills for an electrician and other manufacturing jobs along with updated training are necessary for green manufacturing jobs. 

“These jobs are for lifelong learners,” Fogarty said. “There are a lot of open positions, and they pay well.”

Fogarty said that in Berks there were no manufacturing job losses from August 2019 to August 2020 amid the COVID pandemic. 

He said there are 32,000 jobs, or 17% of local employment, in manufacturing.

In addition, there are 8,700 jobs, or 4.8% of the total employment in Berks in construction jobs, which include the clean energy industry.

The January 2021 report “Advanced Manufacturing Skills Gap in the Greater Berks Region” concluded there is a demand for advanced manufacturing jobs in the region including Berks, Chester, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery and Schuylkill counties.

The report concludes that employers are looking for skilled manufacturing workers.

With an aging workforce, the report notes, it is anticipated about 25% of the manufacturing workforce in the greater Berks region, or 23,170 of the 94,340 production workers, will be retiring by 2029.

The report warned that less than 1% of graduating high school seniors are armed with skills and knowledge to pursue these careers.

No college needed  

Jim Lauckner, a senior project consultant for Smart Energy Initiative for Chester County Economic Development Council, said there are many high-paying jobs available in the clean energy industry that do not require a college degree.

“A lot of people in these fields are retiring,” Lauckner said. “More and more clean energy jobs are becoming available.”

Lauckner said the middle-schools are increasing students’ exposure to manufacturing jobs.

Pennsylvania schools have the What’s so Cool about Manufacturing? contest created by the Manufacturers Resource Center in Allentown, to educate students and parents about manufacturing jobs.

The goal is to change students’ perception about manufacturing jobs and increase interest in those jobs.

Students partner with local manufacturing companies to create videos highlighting manufacturing companies. The winners receive accolades for their efforts.

RACC provides technology programs based on the needs of employers. The college provides classes for anyone interested in learning a trade or advancing their careers.

Bonnie Spayd, executive director of RACC’s workforce and economic development, said she is in contact with 200 manufacturing companies on a regular basis to determine their needs.

As the pandemic winds down, Spayd said, there is a shortage of employees to meet the needs of employers.

“We don’t have limits on the number of students we take,” she said. “We have space for anyone who is interested.”

Spayd said the primary area of employment need is in mechatronics, which combines electronics, mechanics, computer controls and automation. She said machines are not replacing workers, that they are providing different types of jobs that require skills.

“We need people to control the automation,” she said.

To educate the community about changing manufacturing needs, Spayd meets with students in the two high school technology schools and all the high schools in Berks.

Some manufacturing companies had layoffs during the pandemic, while others were busier than ever.

As an example, Spayd said, because consumers were not traveling they were buying pools, leading to pool companies hiring more employees.

Some RACC students are enrolled in two-year programs to obtain associate degrees, while others are taking classes to advance their careers.

The courses provide students with certifications in all aspects of smart manufacturing jobs, which are in high demand.

Jobs are back in Berks

The largest employer in Berks County, East Penn Manufacturing, is on the forefront of clean energy and is looking to hire skilled workers to manufacture batteries.

East Penn, near Lyons, produces lead batteries for micro-hybrid vehicles. The batteries are 100% recyclable. The battery company has lead batteries available for charging stations and is working on developing lithium batteries.

“While we are looking for skilled workers to manufacture our products, as demand for batteries increases, there will be an even greater need,” said Donna Snyder, East Penn spokeswoman.

“Many of the manufacturing jobs involve interacting with computer-based manufacturing systems and the ability to work with robotics,” she said.

As the technical sophistication continues to grow, East Penn will need employees trained in those areas as well as an aptitude and background in mechanical and electrical work, she said.

“There is already a tight pool of people with these skill sets,” Snyder said. "This could eventually affect the flow of operations if this pool gets increasingly tighter."

East Penn also has a division that installs the grid utility and renewable energy market.

“This is an exciting time to be in the battery business as the need for our products continues to evolve and grow,” Snyder said. “We are proud to support these government initiatives and our customers as they continue to foster the growth of clean energy.”

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