SYRACUSE — For the second time in three weeks, a prominent member of President Donald Trump's administration visited central New York to highlight economic initiatives and show support for incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko.
Ivanka Trump, adviser to the president and first daughter, headlined an hour-long roundtable discussion Monday with central New York business and education leaders. The meeting was held at the Institute of Technology at Central in Syracuse.
The high school is the site of a Pathways in Technology Early College High School program designed to prepare students for careers in computer information systems, engineering and other fields. Students who complete the six-year program earn a Regents high school diploma and an associate degree.
The Syracuse P-TECH program is a partnership between the Manufacturers Association of Central New York and Onondaga Community College. The Auburn Enlarged City School District has its own P-TECH collaboration with Cayuga Community College.
Trump, who said she is passionate about workforce development, views programs like P-TECH as a way to address a problem facing many employers: The lack of skilled workers to fill positions.
"There are so many job opportunities, and many of those job opportunities don't require four-year degrees," she said.
She touted two actions taken by the president to prioritize science, technology, engineering and math education: A memorandum calling for an increase in STEM funding and a separate memo directing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to improve access to STEM education.
There are other efforts Ivanka Trump supports, including increasing STEM access to women and expanding apprenticeship opportunities. However, she noted that one challenge facing employers is that there are vacant positions not being filled because people are unaware of the jobs.
Randy Wolken, president and CEO of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, acknowledged that's a problem for companies in the region.
"We have a crisis right now," he said. "We don't have enough workers."
Among MACNY's membership, Wolken estimated that 5 to 10 percent of the positions are vacant at an average company. That's why he believes employers should invest and support programs like P-TECH, which can prepare workers to fill those jobs.
Funding P-TECH is challenging, however. The Syracuse program relies on competitive grants administered by the state. It has been able to win four of those competitions, but a steady source of funding isn't available.
Donna Formica, principal at the Institute of Technology at Central, revealed that the tuition costs for students in the program totaled $102,000. The school has $28,000 earmarked for books and $18,000 for transportation, she added.
The need for additional funding is a concern shared by Auburn Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo, who attended Trump's roundtable discussion.
"They're fortunate here in the Syracuse City School District to get funding to create their own Pathways school," he said. "We'd love to do that in Auburn as well."
The benefits of P-TECH were on display during Trump's conversation with panelists, which included three recent high school graduates. One of those students, Lilly La, graduated from the Institute of Technology in June. She has already earned 32 college credits by taking courses at Onondaga Community College.
She plans to attend Syracuse University, where she will major in biology.
"P-TECH has allowed me to participate in many opportunities that other high schools didn't offer," La said.
It was Trump's second visit to a P-TECH school since her father took office in January 2017. In December, she toured a school in Norwalk, Connecticut. She called it an "eye-opening experience."
She lauded Katko, R-Camillus, for his work in Congress. The two have interacted before. The Syracuse-area congressman attended a meeting in March where he outlined his proposal to establish a paid family leave program — a cause that's important to the first daughter.
At Monday's roundtable discussion, Trump called Katko "a great champion for everyone in his district."
The event was the second of two stops in central New York for Trump. Before coming to Syracuse, she toured Suit-Kote in Cortland County with U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney.
There were protesters outside both venues. More than 100 people gathered near the Institute of Technology at Central to protest the Trump administration's policies.
As she prepared to depart the Syracuse meeting, Ivanka Trump thanked attendees for providing feedback and answering her questions.
"I've learned a lot," she said. "I'll take your suggestions back to Washington with me."