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Editorial: Drug use: Just one piece of the puzzle

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Gov. Corbett was called insensitive, and worse, when back in April he declared that drug abuse was a major factor in the state's lagging unemployment rate.

It was a surprise to us, too, since the Business Journal has been reporting for some time that, especially in manufacturing, employers keep running up against a serious skills gap and a negative image of factory work that discourages young people from pursuing vocational training. Never had anyone mentioned drug abuse or failed drug tests among applicants as a major factor preventing them from hiring.

Not satisfied with the anecdotal evidence that flooded in after the governor's statement as Democrats attacked and Corbett's supporters weighed in, we went looking for numbers. What we found brings more definition to the issue — but leaves a lot of unanswered questions as well.

One thing is certain, however. While the problem may not be as big as the governor suggested, it's not a non-issue either.

There is a relationship between drug use and unemployment, federal statistics show. Generally speaking, more unemployed people abuse drugs and alcohol than employed people. But no one can say for certain which came first. Also serious are alcohol abuse and increasing prescription drug abuse. In fact, a worker with a substance abuse problem is more likely to be impaired by alcohol than illicit drugs.

The good news is that the number of positive drug test results appears to be declining. In occupations where drug policies are most rigorous, the rate is even lower.

So substance abuse is just one of many pieces in the puzzle that is workforce readiness. State agencies, employers, educators, legislators and workers themselves need to work together to figure out how to better match skills and needs. Oversimplified political attacks won't help.

Pennsylvania has assets most other states envy: Natural resources like shale gas; proximity to major ports and a significant portion of the U.S. population; a strong network of post-secondary educational and vocational training options; entrepreneurial know-how; and a culture that values work. Moreover, because of its diverse industries and conservative values, the commonwealth was spared the worst of the housing bubble and subsequent financial meltdown. Pennsylvania should be in a better position than most to roar forward.

Any issue, therefore, that prevents employers from hiring, thus holding back Pennsylvania's economic recovery, should be addressed thoughtfully and thoroughly, not dumbed down — or dismissed — as campaign fodder.

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