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Don Cunningham: Students Keeping a Proud Lehigh Valley Heritage Alive

By Don Cunningham on May 20, 2022

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on May 20, 2022. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

They don’t wear game jerseys, numbers, or helmets.

They don’t run out on a field, a diamond, or a gym floor. No sold-out crowds, marching bands or cheerleaders watch them perform.

They are a different kind of student-athlete.

They train just as much as those who play football or basketball. They spend as many hours or more honing their skills as do those on the baseball and tennis teams. But, despite winning regional, state, and national championships, their name is not likely to appear in a headline.

Their competition is SkillsUSA.

Their “sports” are precision machining, welding, carpentry, electronics, and automotive technologies. Instead of bats and balls, they compete with hammers and laptops and angle grinders.

Their championships don’t hang on a banner in a gym for all to see but their work will fuel the economy of today and tomorrow as they build the products, the buildings, and the skylines of the future.

Last week, at the DeSales University Conference Center, hundreds of parents and grandparents, educators, and business and community leaders gathered to celebrate them and their importance,

The event is Signing Day for District 11.

It was started here in the Lehigh Valley and is now being copied across the nation. It’s where high school seniors from the five career and technical schools in the Greater Lehigh Valley declare — or sign — commitments to where they’re heading next. They are all top-level students who during high school competed in the national SkillsUSA program, a national effort to develop world-class workers, leaders, and citizens with top technical and career skills.

Like their high school counterparts in athletics, in front of a packed house, the students put pen to paper to declare what will follow high school graduation. Some are going to higher education at community colleges or four-year schools, some to serve in the U.S. Armed Services, and 36 of them are taking their in-demand skills to the workforce.

They represent the best and the brightest of their schools: Lehigh Career & Technical Institute, which serves all the school districts in Lehigh County; Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School and Career Institute of Technology, two schools that cover Northampton County; Monroe Career and Technical Institute, serving Monroe County high schools, and the Upper Bucks County Technical School.

All the students at the signing ceremony wore the bright red jackets of SkillsUSA, most of them adorned with the ribbons and badges of victories in regional, state, and national level skills competitions. The boys wore neck ties.

“As a result of their studies, these young adults are prepared to take on jobs and continue their education and have been given a solid foundation on which to build,” said Andy Hammer, District 11 SkillsUSA Council executive director.

Parents held up iPhones and snapped photos while each school’s executive director introduced their class. The red jacket invoked the same king of pride as the green jacket of the golf Masters or the yellow blazer of NFL Hall of Fame.

Future employers stood behind students smiling like a Division I coach that just landed a blue-chip recruit.

Members of this year’s class are heading straight to work at the likes of East Penn Manufacturing, Lehigh Valley Plastics, the Pipefitters and Plumbers Union, Great Wolf Lodge, B. Braun Medical, Penn Engineering & Manufacturing Corp., Lutron Electronics, Edwards Mechanical Contractors, and Allentech, Inc.

They are very much needed, particularly in manufacturing and the building trades.

The Lehigh Valley is unique, both in the educational and skills training that exists and the growth and continued demand of manufacturing.

While not one of the country’s 50th largest markets, the Lehigh Valley punches above its weight class in manufacturing ranking 49th in output in America. The region generates about $8 billion a year in GDP from more than 700 unique manufacturers.

We still make things here.

There are about 35,000 manufacturing jobs in the Lehigh Valley, constituting one of every 10 jobs in the region. The average wage last quarter was $74,000 per year and skilled workers remain in demand despite the addition of 6,000 new manufacturing jobs during the last decade.

Today, the Lehigh Valley produces everything from food and beverages to deodorant, crayons, guitars, medical devices, professional sports uniforms, temperature control devices, artificial knees and other joints, surgical instruments, construction trucks and hundreds of other products.

It’s the children and grandchildren of those who made iron and steel that keep the region’s manufacturing legacy alive. Awareness campaigns like “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” — promoted in all 17 school districts — educates families on job opportunities and helps to fill programs at the technical schools.

Heavy industry also survives and, while much smaller than in the past, has grown in recent years. There are 14 companies with 1,600 workers still forging and producing metals including iron and steel. One of them, Lehigh Heavy Forge, does it on the former site of Bethlehem Steel.

Five cement plants, all now owned by international companies, employ more than 1,000 workers, still making cement products here where the industry was born in America.

And Mack Trucks thrives with 2,500 workers. Every Mack Truck sold in North America is assembled in Macungie.

Most manufacturing work today requires a much-higher level of skill, as automation and technology has replaced the need for abundant labor with more knowledge.

That is why those 17- and 18-year-olds in the red blazers are so important — and worthy of the rest of us cheering them from the stands.

They keep a proud Lehigh Valley heritage alive while driving our economy.

That’s even more important in the long run than having a good foul shot.

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