A senior member of Gov. Tom Corbett's administration visited Palmerton recently to discuss the proposed 2012-13 state budget.

Julia Hearthway, secretary of Labor & Industry, recently met with the Palmerton Area and Greater Northern Lehigh Chamber of Commerces as part of a joint meeting at the Blue Ridge Country Club. After hearing a review of the proposed budget, which was presented to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the audience had a chance to ask questions.

Hearthway said this year's proposed budget is $27.14 billion, more than $20 million below the 2011-12 spending plan. She broke her presentation down into five categories: streamlining government; job-creating; education; public safety; and human services.

"Our top priority is job creation and economic development," Hearthway said. "It's no secret; government does not create jobs, you do."

Hearthway said the Department of L&I is an integral part of the JobsFirst PA initiative, a collection of employment initiatives. One of the parts of JobsFirst PA is Keystone Works, a program that provides back-to-work employment services for the unemployed, as well as incentives for the employers who hire them.

In the program, she said participants will be able to keep their eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits while they receive L&I certified training for up to eight weeks at 24 hours per week. The employers who hire them, Hearthway said, will receive up to $375 for each four-week period in which a program-trained hire works at least 30 hours.

"It's a tremendous opportunity to be able to help someone in a way we were not able to before," she said. "We look to find jobs for them."

As of this week, there were 270,000 jobs posted to be filled, Hearthway said.

"It's creating a much more innovative, creative, fast-matching system," she said. "The job search requirement has been a blessing in disguise."

Hearthway said the governor's cabinet puts people first.

"This is a government that wants to help," she said. "We want to know what is working, what is not working, and do whatever it takes to make Pennsylvania prosper.

Fields questions

Hearthway then fielded questions from the respective chambers.

Peter Kern, president of the Palmerton Area Chamber of Commerce, asked Hearthway to speak about the lack of manufacturing jobs.

Hearthway said the National Manufacturer's Association has a "stackable" credentials program, whereby at the end of the two-year program, an associate degree can be earned.

"There are wonderful, good degrees that don't need a bachelor's degree," she said. "We need to be sure high school students know there are jobs out there."

Kern added, "in other words, there's no shame in not having a college degree."

Palmerton Chamber member Marge Porambo asked whether the government planned to do the same for people on welfare.

Hearthway said there is a Welfare For Work program. Around the state, there are PA CareerLink sites run by L&I that provide employment services.

Jack Sturm, a member of the Palmerton Chamber, asked whether there were programs available for economic development.

"We still are keeping in the Labor and Industry, a truly authentic, high-tech growth," Hearthway said. "Yes, absolutely."

George Ashman, a member of the Palmerton Chamber, discussed the large volume of jobs being shipped overseas.

Hearthway told Ashman that was an "obvious problem."

"It's our number one issue; we need to have people in our communities making sustainable wages," she said. "We need to remain competitive."

Afterward, Kern thanked Hearthway for her appearance.

"It's not often we have such a distinguished guest from Harrisburg," he said. "We certainly hope you will have the opportunity to revisit Palmerton."

Kern noted that the next meeting of the Palmerton Area Chamber of Commerce will be held at noon, April 10, at Bert's Steakhouse Restaurant.