By Mark Edwards, Frank Cettina, and Victoria R. Myers

Education funding is one of the most important issues affecting the long-term growth of our city. But the focus on paying for K-12 bypasses another pressing need in Philadelphia: providing 21st-century training and skills to the young adults who have been failed by our education system.

Philadelphia Works' analysis shows that young adults ages 16 to 19 in the city have an unemployment rate nearly 30 percentage points higher than similar age groups statewide.

While we have seen tremendous growth in postsecondary education in our region, this does nothing to address what is known as the "middle skills" gap. Middle-skill jobs, which require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree, account for 55 percent of Pennsylvania employment. But only 44 percent of the state's workers are trained to the middle-skill level.

Median wages for such jobs in the manufacturing sector range from $19 to $30 per hour. Right now, industries with well-paying jobs in our state are unable to find enough sufficiently trained workers to fill these openings.

An avenue exists to address this issue: In 2007, Philadelphia Works formed the Southeastern Regional Workforce Development Partnership, a collaborative effort that brings together private-sector employers to provide certification-based training for workers to increase employer productivity and create new entry-level job opportunities. The project is part of the statewide Industry Partnerships (IP) program, a model for other states that has provided guidance and funding for more than 100,000 training participants since 2005.

IPs grow regional economies, boost the bottom lines of businesses, and help workers take their careers to the next level or find better jobs within their industries. Legislators recognized IPs' high return on investment in 2011, when they voted unanimously to approve the program.

The results have been impressive. Participating businesses report that networking and training through IPs helped them significantly increase their productivity. IPs also give our career and technical educators, community colleges, and other trainers real intelligence on industry needs.

Here in Philadelphia, we have seen the Workforce Development Partnership grow from an initial cohort of nine employers in 2007 to more than 50 today, including major companies in the manufacturing, rotorcraft, logistics, and transportation industries. The partnership focuses on creating pipelines to employment, having conducted more than 2,300 training classes in partnership with member employers.

Nearly 70 percent of participants in these training programs received an industry-recognized certificate or credential, 40 percent received wage increases, and 13 percent were promoted. We have seen IPs deliver results firsthand, and we want more businesses and workers in our state to do the same.

One of our partner members, PTR Baler & Compactor, was honored recently with the Annie E. Casey Young Adult Employer Champion Award by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions for its work in recruiting, hiring, and retaining young adults. PTR Baler's unique training program and approach to hiring are a direct result of the company's work with the Workforce Development Partnership.

Unfortunately, state funding for IPs has slipped to nearly $1 million in recent years, and we are in very real danger of losing many of the gains that have been made. Fewer businesses are being trained through IPs and - even more important - less networking, peer learning, and coordination are taking place to improve our overall training and career system.

We cannot let this successful economic development strategy wither on the vine. That's why it's important to make lawmakers understand that adequate funding for IPs is a vital step to building them into a critical competitive advantage for the state.

The current session of the General Assembly presents a real opportunity to turn things around. Our representatives in Harrisburg should do everything they can to strengthen Pennsylvania's IP strategy during the annual budget and appropriations process. We urge lawmakers to support this smart, high-return investment in public-private cooperation. Doing so would be good for the state's economy, benefiting workers and businesses alike.

Frank Cettina is the vice president of operations at Computer Components Corp. and a cochair of the Southeastern Regional Workforce Development Partnership. Victoria R. Myers is the director of administration at Piasecki Aircraft Corp. and a cochair of the Workforce Development Partnership.