October 27, 2021

Supporting Skill-based and Frontline Workers With Joe Ciresi, PA House Representative

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #61

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Joe Ciresi, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Representative Ciresi has dutifully served the 146th District in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since 2018 and has made it a priority to create an effective, all-inclusive job training pipeline from K-12 to the workforce.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Joe sat down with Sam and discussed education, training programs, and how we can best support skill-based and frontline workers in our workforce.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Ceresi shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Go in and understand where they come from, why they’re arguing this side of it and find the common ground.”
  • “There’s become a stigma against blue collar jobs because you were seen as ‘just a laborer,’ even though laborers make great pay and have great jobs.”
  • “People need to feel that there’s hope and that there are jobs out there.”
  • “Workforce development is a huge issue that we need to take on as a nation.”
  • “There will be things robots can’t do and shouldn’t do.”


Joe: Workforce development is a huge issue that we need to take on as a nation right now. And I’m part of the National Infrastructure Bank. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the NIB movement to start the fifth national bank of America. It started with Hamilton and last was with Roosevelt, and the idea is to take $5 trillion and put it into this bank where municipalities, boroughs, and cities can borrow from it at a 2% interest rate and do all your municipal projects, all your infrastructure projects, and transportation, water, electrical, but the issue we have is, do we have the workforce to be able to do those projects? 

So like the WPA after World War II, where we had to take all the women, went to the workplace for the first time in masses, we train that workforce. We had a whole new workforce that came in. It’s the same movement that we have right now. I was the president of the school board where I lived for a while. And then I sat as the chair of the vocational school, of the career and tactical school as we refer to them now, for years. And we’re always looking to make sure that we are ahead of the curve.

And I think what happened over the last, I’d say 15 years, is there’s been a change in philosophy and the way that we think about the future of our education, our students, where they’re going. The biggest change is, my generation, well, I’m 50. My parents were laborers in a factory. My father is a first-generation American, so they didn’t graduate high school.

They went right to work and he was a union shop steward. My father had a company on Long Island called Paul Corporation his whole life, but he wanted me to go to college. So I’d have to be a laborer, which was great. So a whole generation all went off to college. And we were all gonna do the white-collar job.

What happened to the blue-collar jobs? They disappeared. You can’t find a real rate. Someone who works on plumbing, electrical, HPAC, and those jobs paid today more than the white-collar jobs, but we don’t train them because there was a stigma on my generation of, oh, you’re going to be a laborer. 

Well, you know what? We all should have been laborers. Because the money in that area is huge. They’re great-paying union jobs and great benefits that look out for their employees. And as you talk about people coming back into the workforce and retraining them, we need to show them that there’s a great way for you to have a long-term career.

And I’ve worked in the arts my whole life before I came to the statehouse. So like Madison Square Garden, there was a venue in Philadelphia called the Kimmel Center. We don’t have people who are rigors and lighting engineers and sound engineers. It’s like, they’re grasping looking for these people because they’re not being trained as much on it. Those jobs can pay anywhere from 25 to 125 to $200 an hour. I hate to say plumber because I don’t mean it like, oh, it’s just a plumber. I can’t find a plumber here at my house. And when they do come, it’s 200 bucks to have the walk in before they’ve done anything. So as a state representative, the one thing we’ve been talking a lot about, and our governor has been great about this year in Pennsylvania is to support workforce development.

And with the unemployment rate being what it is, we’re trying to retool the thought process of people to say, look, you may have worked in this industry, but start to look over here at this industry. I have an employee that works for me, who retired from the electrical union, Pam Hacker. And I talked about Pam a lot. 

For 32 years she was an electrician. For a woman to be in the electrical industry. 32, it’s like 33 years ago now, 34. She’s been with me almost three years. That was a big deal. We have to show that it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, whether you’re older or younger, these are great jobs that we need people in because, can you find a shoe repair person anymore?

All these niche things, we can’t find anyone to do it any longer. So I may have spoken a little bit too long. I apologize. I’ll get to your question, but I just wanted to give you that quick overview. 

Sam: Yeah, it’s a great point. It’s not like we haven’t had a lack of job training programs though, across the country at the state or the federal level. So we’ve had programming. I guess, why had those roles largely gone without? Is it that we are overeducated in the wrong areas? Too many people have been going to a four-year college?

Joe: No, and I don’t want to take away from college at all. I think that we didn’t educate at a younger age. We didn’t show the career paths as much as we could have. And, as a school board member, we invested in it. We would show them at high school, but we really have to start around sixth grade and start showing these industries and what they really mean. I mean, I had no idea what underwater welders are and how much money they make.

They’re like two to $300,000 a year, some of them. Now, granted, you’re underwater, welding with whatever’s above you, like with the bridges and all, but holy moly, they make more than doctors make in some areas. So we made it where there was a stigma when you went to that type of work or when we were kids, it was like, oh, you’re doing that.

There is no more stigma. Now you want to say, you got to do this. Cause it’s a great paying job, great benefits. It’s a sustained income. That’s never going away. We’ll always need a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic, a contractor, a carpenter. And especially now we can’t find those people anymore because there’s not enough, and everybody through COVID who’s doing so much work on their homes, if there’s not enough people out there to do these jobs anymore and they can name their price. 

So I think that’s what has happened over time and depends on it swinging back the other way.

Sam: In my work, I’m going to speak just to work in the state of New Jersey, it seems at times like the workforce development programs work so hard for placement for people, trying to get people connected to either technical schools or directly into training. There’s a job on the other side is obviously a big thing. I constantly hear that if there’s no job on the other side of the training, it’s almost not valued as much.

I guess my question is, what can the government really do locally to make sure that we’re successful at connecting people to jobs that are available or connecting them to accessing the skills for jobs? What can the government really do and how are they doing? 

Joe: Well, I think the government must support education, must support the whole educational value of those types of jobs. And then must offer an option for people to be trained in it at a reasonable price. So, if you want to go to a trade school and you’re out of work for two years, you don’t have $30,000 to pay to go to that trade school. So we should be able to offer grants for that. We should be able to work with contractors who need people who have apprentice programs. We should be able to promote our apprentice programs throughout, I say the Commonwealth because I’m in Pennsylvania, but throughout the country, and work to show them that at the end of the day, we need, in this area of Pennsylvania, 300 more plumbers, 500 more electricians. 

So you’re being trained and you know, when you come out, you got a job. My son’s college has a program that they say is a hundred percent placement. And when he started, we went, yeah, right. He graduates in two months and he’s got a job lined up. They worked hard to develop relationships with corporations to make sure that every kid that graduates had an opportunity to have a job upon graduation.

And that’s almost the same thing as a government that we can work with. People need to feel that there’s hope also, and you have to show them that there is hope. There are jobs out there. Now, maybe it’s a whole career change. Unfortunately, sometimes that happens, sometimes an industry dries up and you’d have to find another industry, but being able to work with the community colleges that offer this, I think that we should have more technical training at our community colleges to make it more affordable and more in your neighborhood rather than have to go to the big universities for it. So that’s something else the government can do.

Sam: I talked to a lot of business owners, and minimum wage is coming up as a pretty big talking point, around 15 bucks federally. And I think about minimum wage, and then I think about the long-term unemployed today that exists in the country and the high percentage of turnover that occurs, which is one of the highest in the world. With minimum wage turnover, state of the workforce, how do you think about minimum wage and the skills gap? Is there any crossover as to the way that skills could impact business owners changing their perspective? Like if, if people were automatically skilled, would business owners not be as concerned about rising minimum wage?

Joe: The minimum wage, and I’ve said this from my political career, there are smaller family-owned businesses, and I mean your small businesses, that the whole family works there and it may be a restaurant or a plumbing business, or an electrical business, small businesses. If I tell you, you got to double your salary, your expenses, it’s going to be a cost on them.

So what can we do as a government to help them through that? So we do a three-year plan where the minimum wage is going up. Some of the taxes for them are adjusted, so it comes back to where it is. We need to give a living wage because if you’re in Newark, there’s no way on seven and a quarter an hour in our cities, there’s no way you’re finding a place to live. I mean, it’s not realistic. 

So minimum wage is always an issue, but minimum wage also, I think, should be somewhat regionalized. Now I’m outside of Philadelphia. We’re a suburb of Philadelphia. So it’s expensive. Montgomery counties and the county I live in. When you get to the middle part of our state, the same house in Montgomery county may cost 500,000, in that area may cost 250,000. The cost of living is completely different. So $15 an hour in the city of Philadelphia, compared to $15 an hour in the center of the state is night and day. In Philly, you could hardly live in the center of the state. You may be able to live comfortably, I’m not saying you can or can’t, but I’m just giving an example.

So there has to be something looked at that’s a little bit more regionalized. Do we need to raise the minimum wage in some areas? Absolutely. Seven and a quarter an hour in Pennsylvania, we can’t even compete with everyone who’s around us. You in New Jersey are much higher than us. So it’s a factor of how we compete.

But at the same time, we must give an incentive to the small business. Will it help the workforce? Well, if you have someone who’s talented, they’re not taking seven and a quarter an hour. Some of them are taking 15, you’re going to pay 25 and a half though, because they can bring you in business. So I don’t know how it really affects the true workforce development side of it, other than the business’s bottom line when you look at it. Apples to apples. 

Sam: Sure. I want to ask you about, there’s obviously a social movement that’s occurring with a lot of young people today, but it seems like at the same time, getting a perspective around why working in public office is so critical and so important for the next generations coming up.

Like I’d like to ask you first, why you ran for office, and second, any advice you have to either young business leaders or young people who are considering being politically active in their communities in some way, shape or form. 

Joe: I got involved from a young age. Far back as I can remember, I was involved with the University of Miami, I alluded to, with Congresswoman Shalala, we talked about her. I ran for student body president. I lost, my wife always reminded me how many friends I had, I think 161 votes. Okay. Whatever. But I ran because I saw that there was an inequity in the way we were doing things. And I know I was only there because I got a scholarship. We could never afford it. We didn’t have the money, but I went on a full ride.

And when the expenses were going up, I’m like, I can’t afford any of this. And it’s not fair. So when I graduated, I got involved in my community. When we moved here to Pennsylvania, my son at the time was three. So I decided to go on the school board, and I felt it was something to give back. And then the fighting for those people who really couldn’t fight for themselves or who were afraid to open their mouth to be the voice. I come from, like I said, two parents whose mother graduated high school at 65. My father never did. He went to 10th grade. My grandparents all came from Italy. So, you know, I’m always a second-generation American. So I know what it’s like to be in a family where the power was shut off. The water was shut off. You had to ask for help at times. And they struggled with three kids. So it was important to get involved and give back. 

The biggest advice I give to young people is get involved, but don’t be a one pony issue person. Look at the broader sense. And go in with an open mind. If you and I don’t agree on something, from your last name, I think we’re both Italian. 

Sam: Yep.

Joe: Italians tend to have a big argument, and then we all sit at the table and eat dinner together. No matter what, someone’s yelling at somebody in the house, but you always got your back. I don’t care who I just argued with. If you say something against them, I’m coming out here. Go in and listen to what other people have to say. Go in and not get offended right away. Go in and understand where they come from, why they’re arguing this side of it, and find the common ground. And don’t be turned off by the polarization that we’re seeing right now in politics, because it’s up to us to bring this back in, to be able to sit at the table and talk to each other. 

I love talking to someone who disagrees with me. Not to argue with, ’cause by the time we’re done, I guarantee you, we can walk away from that table and find commonalities. Now, will we agree to pass this bill? But we might have passed that bill, but we can maybe find something in common that we can work on. And again, I bring up my heritage because that’s the way the family acted. You’d go at each other and love each other, but we would all be high-strung about the issue. And I see that the younger generations they’re like this in some of the things and you have to be more open-minded and listen. 

Look, I’m outside of Philly. The middle part of our state is like upstate New York is like anywhere. It’s more rural. They have a whole different environment than we have outside of a city. Newark is totally different from what it is at the Jersey shore. So when their representatives argue a point, it’s because that’s the community they live in. You have to hear it. I believe that we should do a program where we exchange districts for a week and we get to see how somebody else is.

And when we were on the school board, we did that, we called it, “the board goes back to school” to see what goes on. Cause I’m at the school forever. And our superintendent went back to the classroom with teachers, to see what the teachers are going with. Same thing as representatives. Let me go into that district that’s completely different from mine and their rep comes to my district and I go to theirs and understand them better. So I hope that we have a generation behind me that really wants to get involved in the right reasons. There are hard days to be a politician. And the people say “I hate to be called a politician” well, that’s what you are. You’re an elected official. People get mad at you for everything, and other people praise you and you didn’t get into this job to be praised or to be yelled at, you got it to do the right thing. And sometimes it’s a hard decision. 

Sam: Yeah. It totally resonates around the table. And we still argued a little bit around the table too. 

Joe: You know what Sam, it’s fine. I always say that it’s fine to have that discussion. I tend to raise my voice because I came from that type of family where we always raise our voice, but it’s like the dog with a barking that comes and brushes up against you, wants you to pet him.

I want to have that where we can find the resolve together, and I’m going to have your back, even if I disagree with you. If you’re true to your beliefs, I’m with you a hundred percent. If you’re playing a game, well, that’s a different story. But if you really believe that I could support you, even if I may not support the issue, I can support your point of view. I don’t have to vote for it, but I understand it. 

Sam: Sure. I have one last question. Thanks for the time. There’s a lot of talk about the future of work. It’s become a mainstream topic. It usually is often followed by a discussion around robots that are gonna swing in and take everybody’s jobs. It seems like that’s where most of the conversation revolves around. So I like to ask what your hope is for the future of work as an elected official, as someone who’s sat on school boards and been so involved in education, as a leader in the state of Pennsylvania, what is your hope for the future?

Joe: I hope that we continue to look at growing environments and in markets where we didn’t see before. Robots are just the next phase of the workforce. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to replace humans everywhere we go. We can go back a hundred years ago and look at where we are today.

How did we do that? I mean, people were in manufacturing and then they all found a way, but we have to look at emerging markets. We have to support the entrepreneur and the idea, that’s how we grow as a nation. Where do we go from here? Look at the car industry is about to do a massive change, all to electric.

What does that mean? Well, it’s going to be a ton of new businesses that come out of that, and to be able to have robots you’d still need people and innovation. So we have to support innovation. The incubator centers as they call them. Those are extremely important for where we go as a nation to support those incubators.

Some of the best ideas came out of somebody doing something and Fel-Pro came from the space industry. Look at how it changed the face of everything that we do. So we just need to look at where the workforce is going. Will robots take some jobs? Yeah. I mean the production line, they took jobs. But there will still always be a human touch. There’ll be things that robots can’t do and shouldn’t do. And as a society, hopefully we don’t go there. I always think of the movie Wall-E, where the people were just sitting on a seat forever and robots do everything for them. And finally, everything fell apart and the humans had to come back and do it.

I think that we just have to keep supporting innovation and looking for what else comes. I don’t know what tomorrow holds. You may have a great invention that’s coming up soon. I hope you do. 

Sam: Yeah, me too. Representative Joe Ciresi, I appreciate you taking some time with us.

Joe: Anytime, Sam.

Topics discussed: Education, Politics, Government, Labor, Wages, Job Training, Leadership, Labor, Workforce, Work, Jobs, Minimum Wage

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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