Special Reports

A Q&A with state Rep. Jason Dawkins

The chair of the House Labor & Industry Committee discusses workforce priorities

state Rep. Jason Dawkins

state Rep. Jason Dawkins PA House Democratic Caucus

If you know state Rep. Jason Dawkins, you know he’ll happily talk minimum wage. The Philadelphia Democrat chairs the House Labor and Industry Committee in Harrisburg, setting the committee’s agenda and debates on issues affecting workers and businesses across the commonwealth. 

City & State spoke with Dawkins during a one-on-one interview to get his insight into the state’s workforce development challenges and how lawmakers hope to connect individuals to training and apprenticeship opportunities. 

What workforce-related issues do you hear the most about when talking with constituents, and how has that affected your approach as chair of the House Labor & Industry Committee?

One of the things that I’ve heard of most consistently is access to unions or access to opportunity. From a workforce standpoint, most folks understand that in this modern time, they have to be retooled to go after the jobs that are there. And when we look at our labor movement, especially here in the City of Philadelphia, it’s a proud city that has a deep, deep history around its labor opportunities … I think it's a testament of that will and commitment to continue to evolve with the times to ensure that we have a strong workforce. 

Some of the things that folks talked about are having more opportunity in our schools – not just starting in our high school level, but also looking at our K-8 students and really trying to introduce children to this concept that they can go into this space … Most kids when they were younger, played in the sandbox, played with Tonka trucks and all these other construction toys. It seems like once they got into the years of academia, those things kind of went by the wayside. I think there is a bridge that we can build to keep that imagination strong for kids that actually see a vision, a path or a track they can stay on to one of these pre-apprenticeship programs that we can integrate within our public school sector. 

Another concern is around the tech piece – how do we utilize these children and their addiction to the internet, gaming and all these other things and how do we tie it back to workforce development? When we were looking at bringing Amazon here, one of the critiques they were making was that we didn’t have this pipeline or workforce. It starts to resonate with me, saying ‘Wait, we have all these young people who are really creative in the internet space and really on the forefront of all the latest trends.’ Why aren’t we trying to tap into that space to create that pipeline?

We have to figure out a better way to attract and retain. One of the other challenges is the remedial, test-taking approach to how one gains entry to some of these labor sectors. This has become a barrier because it’s an 11th-grade reading comprehension and Algebra One requirement. As we know, we have some real challenges related to how our kids receive and digest information – it’s through a very old and archaic style of learning. It’s not that they don’t know algebra or how to read at this level, it’s how we are presenting that information for them to actually learn it. We need to rethink and reimagine education so that young people can really understand how they put those principles into practice in real life and achieve some of those goals. 

Can you discuss your Opportunity Grant Program proposal and what other channels there are to support connecting individuals with apprenticeship opportunities?

The first opportunity is at the start. If we can incentivize children to go after some of these openings or opportunities, I think it's absolutely helpful. Years ago, before I actually got sworn in, I had another bill that was floating around regarding kids who are graduating in the state and retaining them by purchasing out their first mortgage and holding on as a second for five to 10 years. We would essentially buy your home. If you were a graduate and you were going to use that talent here in Pennsylvania, we would give you up to a $100,000 grant. It’s almost like a rebate program, which we do for a lot of developers here. 

This all ties into these different aspects that we are trying to lay out to ensure we have enough tools in the toolbox to keep kids here and keep them focused on this goal. We have openings in this marketplace right now that we cannot fill because we do not have anyone who has the training or the criteria to fill those jobs. We have to think about how we want kids to succeed here in the commonwealth. We are seeing an uptick in gun violence in our communities, an uptick in kids not going to school and an uptick in kids using addictive drugs. These are all signs of depression, loss, sadness – these are prime examples of how we can turn around this city if we really figure out the root causes. When I was chair of the Philadelphia delegation, we were really looking at some of the root causes of poverty and some of the spin-offs. But with these opportunities, we’re hoping to drill back into these kids that there’s an opportunity to trade in the streets for a career, jail for a career or a graveyard for a career. It has to be something obtainable, it has to be something real and it has to be something that is funded. 

Where else do gaps exist when it comes to connecting people to these programs?

There has to be a trust factor. If I'm going to be willing to give up this life and trust you when everyone else has let me down, and you let me down and are unable to fulfill that commitment, as a young person I’m never going to trust you and I will tell my friends not to trust you. I’m very cautious when I go out and try to recruit or talk to young people about opportunities. I've tried to level-set in reality by saying, ‘Hey, I can help you get here. But it’s going to require us to really work and if you need training or tutoring, I’m here to help you.’

One of the things I did before I became Labor chair – and a long while before I knew I was going to be selected as chair – I had a program called Apprenticeship Prep with the Rep. I would call different unions to come into my office in the evenings and do a 20-minute presentation of what their union stood for. I would invite local community folks who are looking for options and jobs, they would answer questions and then we would move through the process of going through a pre-apprentice prep program to see if we can get through that test. We have tutors here in the office who are willing to help potential students so they can actually pass that test. We were partnered with the carpenters union and they used to meet up at Sturgis Recreation Center up in the top part of my district. For years, up until the pandemic, we were sending a ton of young people to that program because we knew there was a great success rate if we could get them to that test. 

What other topics have you sought to spotlight?

The minimum wage conversation is at the forefront of every conversation that we’re having. I think when I first became Labor Chair, I made a commitment to our leadership that I would address the minimum wage. I believe it’s something we’ve been talking about for a very, very long time. Once we had the option to get into power, I didn't want to waste any time belaboring that point because there were a lot of empty promises that were made to us throughout the years around minimum wage. We always said if we ever got the opportunity, we would try to get it done. Now we had a commitment from our Republican colleagues on the other side – they even wrote a memo, which I used to create a bipartisan bill so that there would be no ambiguity. We weren't going to play politics, we were going to use exact verbiage to create some type of synergy between the two caucuses. Obviously, that fell short because we were able to wait on these guys to push out a bill from their committee. It never happened, which led me to push out a bill from my committee to force their hand and say, ‘Hey, move on your own bill.’ 

Dan Laughlin has been talking about minimum wage consistently for the last week. I don’t know where that energy comes from because it wasn’t there when we were talking about this before the summer. We know in the state of Pennsylvania, we are in last place in minimum wage among our surrounding states. That alone should motivate anyone in the state, regardless of party affiliation, to do something about it. My question to my Republican colleagues is: What are you afraid of? Their fear always was the big-box folks wanting to leave your neighborhood and cause chaos in the community. That’s just not reality any longer. We have to keep up with the times and have some type of safety net for our workers in these communities who are long overdue to have a pay increase. Last time I checked, every state legislator got a pay increase and they didn’t ask for it. We should be willing to pass that forward and give it to those Pennsylvanians who deserve it. 

Back to Special Report: Improving Workforce Development