U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said he sees Stark State College Akron as a place to help students get the skills that local businesses need.

Portman came to the Akron campus on Tuesday for a workforce roundtable that addressed the so-called skills gap. The Ohio Republican talked about legislation he co-wrote, the JOBS Act, that if passed would provide money to people to take short-term job training programs. (JOBS is a shortened acronym for Jumpstart Our Businesses By Supporting Students.)

The legislation, co-sponsored by Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, was introduced last week and is getting bipartisan support, Portman said. Para Jones, president of Stark State College, was among the educators who helped shape the bill, Portman said.

“I just think it is such a problem in society today that we have so many jobs open and yet we can’t get the skill level up to be able to fill those jobs,” Portman said. More than 7 million jobs are currently unfilled, in large part because people don't have the skills to take them, he said.

The JOBS Act, if passed, will expand the Pell Grant program and be available to mid-career people as well as young people just out of high school, Portman said.

“The bottom line is really a pretty simple concept, which is how do you ensure that the education that we are providing with our tax dollars, some with people’s hard-earned tuition checks, is fitting with what’s needed in the community in terms of jobs,” Portman said. “We want our businesses to grow here in Summit County. We want everyone to have the opportunity to achieve their dream in life. Those two things work together.”

The hourlong roundtable program included Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, Stark State students and graduates, Para Jones, local business leaders and college trustees.

The business people at the roundtable said more needs to be done to encourage high school students to explore jobs that don’t involve having to get a four-year college degree.

One woman with Akron-based energy management business The K Co. said that some heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians have the potential to earn as much as $100,000 a year. “But getting people aware of that is a struggle,” she said.

The JOBS Act would expand federal Pell Grants to cover short-term job training such as certificate programs. The grants currently are for low-income and working students in programs that run more than 600 hours or at least 15 weeks.

After the roundtable and a tour of the $15.7 million Stark State Akron facility, which opened last summer, Portman took media questions.

Portman said funding for the JOBS Act is in President Trump’s newly proposed budget. “It is a program that’s badly needed right now,” Portman said.

Portman said the JOBS Act would be something that workers at General Motor’s Lordstown plant could participate in if GM decides to permanently close the factory. GM ended Chevrolet Cruze production there earlier this month.

But Portman said he wants General Motors to build another vehicle at Lordstown.

“I’m not giving up,” he said.

Jim Mackinnon covers business and county government. He can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ