Lancaster technical college thrives on industry partnerships

Ioannis Pashakis//May 15, 2019

Lancaster technical college thrives on industry partnerships

Ioannis Pashakis//May 15, 2019

Alex Headings and Stephanie Mekhail, both graduates of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, work at Nestle Purina Pet Care Co.’s Hampden Township, Cumberland County factory in 2017. Both Headings and Mekhail interned at the factory as students before they were hired by Purina. (Photo: Submitted)

When they got their diplomas this month, the 400 graduates of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology were offered 4,000 jobs by 1,300 employers– about 1,000 jobs more than were on the table last year.

While the offers were good news for the students of the Lancaster-based technical college, they are a sign of just how many employers are looking for skilled workers.

The search begins well before graduation. Many employers are investing time and resources into partnerships with colleges like Thaddeus Stevens in a bid to stand out.

One is Nestle Purina Pet Care Co., which operates a factory in Hampden Township, Cumberland County. The Nestle Purina factory and Thaddeus Stevens have been working together for the past decade. The factory’s managers sit on several of the school’s advisory councils and the company donates equipment and money to the school. It also provides tours and internships to students.

William Griscom, president of Thaddeus Stevens, said Nestle Purina is among the college’s strongest partners, providing more resources and assisting in more classes than most others. He noted that Nestle Purina leaders from St. Louis, Missouri also have shown interest in the partnership and visited the college.

In return, Nestle Purina gets a say in what up-and-coming students learn both in class and through internships that can make the school’s graduates prime hires for the factory.

“Thaddeus Stevens’ training, along with the on-the-job training Purina provides, enables us to stay ahead of the curve with regards to hiring,” said Mike O’Brien, the manager the Nestle Purina factory, which employs 325 people. It makes numerous Purina brands including dry food for the Cat Chow, Dog Chow, Beneful, Purina ONE and Pro Plan brands.

Help wanted

Hundreds of companies partner with Thaddeus Stevens. And they acknowledge that they could run more shifts and operate more equipment if the state had a better-trained workforce, according to Griscom.

“We have companies that need to replace retiring employees and they don’t have the resources they need,” Griscom said. “They clearly do not have the human capital, and partnerships like this are certainly important to them and to us.”

Other companies that partner with Thaddeus Stevens include High Industries in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County; electronic parts supplier Phoenix Contact in Lower Swatara Township, Dauphin County; and custom machinery manufacturer Astro Machine Works in Ephrata.

The college’s industrial partners advise the school in creating a curriculum and purchasing equipment.

Some offer more than just advice.

In 2016, Purina donated $25,000 toward the purchase of a “Sawyer” robot for the school’s electronic engineering and electro-mechanical technology programs. The robot, created by the now-defunct Boston-based Rethink Robotics, operates in factory settings alongside human workers.

O’Brien said the investments help prepare the coming workforce to handle an increasingly technical environment and work with equipment used in factories like Nestle Purina’s.

He also said that many job opportunities come from the internships, with graduates filling roles engineering, control technology and maintenance.

“What I witnessed at the school is that you are given a lot of technical understanding but it is hard to apply it because it is so far outside of your understanding of how things work,” said Stephanie Mekhail, a controls specialist with Purina who interned at the factory in her second year at Thaddeus Stevens. “By the time I got through that second year I could see where all of my skills could go and what I needed to focus on and I was hired here once I got my degree.”

The continued investment in the college’s 23 programs from area businesses totaled $1 million last year. Griscom said that businesses have realized they need to get the attention of the next generation if they are to have enough people to make up for the loss of Pennsylvania’s retiring baby boomers.

State leaders also are shining a light on the issue.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2019-20 budget includes a program to invest $35 million in workforce development. Republican lawmakers also are working on a package of bills to address shortages of skilled workers.

Griscom said he is glad to see wider interest in the challenges facing employers.

“Workforce is the No. 1 issue in Lancaster County and we have to work together because it is in our best interest,” he said. “We have great industries in Pennsylvania with a great, vibrant, diverse economy and we have to keep that going.”