From classroom to factory floor: Here’s how some PA students have jobs waiting for them after graduation

The Challenge Program – tour

The Challenge Program

By Ashley Adams

December 15, 2023

Pennsylvania’s innovative student-to-workforce program paves the way to manufacturing careers.

Imagine graduating from high school and stepping right into a full-time, well-paying job.

That’s exactly what happened to Brandon James.

The Forest Hills High School graduate from Cambria County was offered a career at GapVax—a vacuum trucks company in Johnstown—immediately after graduation.

“I’m very happy (about) how everything worked out,” James said.

While still in school, James had worked part-time at GapVax through the “Students in the Workplace” initiative offered by The Challenge Program.

The program connects students in grades 10 through 12 in Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Blair, and Allegheny counties with on-the-job experience at manufacturing companies that provide direct-hire opportunities. Since its inception, Students in the Workplace has connected more than 50 students with manufacturing jobs.

“This year, we are at almost 140 schools participating in the program,” said Barbara Grandinetti, president of The Challenge Program. “Our motto is not where are you going to college, but what are you going to do.”

The Students in the Workforce initiative was funded by a Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development grant. Not only is it helping students learn about the many careers right in their backyards, but it’s also helping companies fill vacancies for skilled labor.

Throughout the academic year, representatives from the businesses working with the program give presentations about the jobs, the pay, and what background is needed to gain employment with them, said Melanie Muha, Director of Program Development and Marketing. The students can sign up to tour the facility, and the program works hard to get the kids motivated to fill out an application.

“We saw a need in our business partners and in our schools,” Muha said. “We are trying to keep kids local. These kids don’t know that there are really well-paying jobs sometimes right down the street.”

Grandinetti agreed.

“One of the things we were finding out is that these kids couldn’t properly fill out an application yet they are still being taught Shakespeare in school,” she said. “There are a lot of career fairs happening and other ‘one and done’ activities and that’s it. This program is in the school all year long and shows them the job and the people who got jobs with them.”

Grandinetti said it’s a win-win situation for both the students and the businesses.

“We know that the manufacturers are crying for workers,” Grandinetti said. “These companies are offering good money for these jobs. We are finding that this type of program is really catching on.”

Grandinetti said the organization follows high growth industries, such as the health care and financial sectors, in addition to manufacturing, to recruit businesses into the program. She also said they hope to expand into more schools throughout the state.

“We try to figure out who needs the most workers because those workers are sitting in the schools,” Grandinetti said.

But, Grandinetti said, one of the most rewarding parts of the entire program is seeing the success stories. 

“In many communities and for many students, this is a life-changing opportunity,” Grandinetti said. “A positive, life-changing experience.”


  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.

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