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Workforce Woes: Few simple answers apparent for manufacturing quandaries

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About one in seven midstate manufacturing workers employed in the fourth quarter 2007 no longer Worked in that industry in the fourth Quarter of 2012. What's Next for the industry?
About one in seven midstate manufacturing workers employed in the fourth quarter 2007 no longer Worked in that industry in the fourth Quarter of 2012. What's Next for the industry?

More than five years after the recession began, midstate Pennsylvania has a manufacturing workforce that is more than 15 percent smaller and is down millions of dollars in weekly wages not available to be spent in the wider economy.

So what can anyone do about it?

Answers range from a broad discussion of the skills gap that exists between manufacturers' need and employees' ability to some initiatives and processes that are gaining steam.

Unfortunately, few of those interviewed by the Business Journal had ideas classified as quick or easy. According to one local official, the complete righting of the ship could be measured not in years but decades.

Strategy No. 1: Help schools make products (graduates) the market needs

Education stakeholders recognize they have to be doing a better job at matching the product coming out of schools, meaning educated students, with the needs of businesses, said Darrell Auterson, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance.

In fact, schools that do not have strong relationships with business and industry so they can know the market demand are not in a position to be sustainable, he said. They need to be working in that direction, and in the region they are all doing it to some degree, Auterson said.

At its International Business & Workforce Expo this year, the alliance allowed about 250 to 300 high school students to have structured interviews with employers so the students could get to know them and see what employers were looking for in terms of skills sets, Auterson said.

The alliance received positive feedback and plans to do something similar next time, Auterson said.

The economic alliance also has been partnering with the South Central Workforce Investment Board on its surveying to gauge employer needs and identify skills gaps across the counties it covers.

From there, service providers from schools to retraining organizations in the area can help form strategies to do something about the gap.

Filling the gulf between employer needs and people looking for work will not happen overnight, Auterson said. In fact, it could get worse before it gets better.

Manufacturers have come to lean on technology even more heavily in recent years, so people who want jobs will need the right hard skills to fill the need. At the same time, the baby boom generation is about to retire and take with them many years of manufacturing experience and skills.

Whoever takes their places will have to strive to meet those standards, Auterson said. So another part of the strategy has to be capturing the retiring knowhow and transferring it to the next generation.

Potential employees can make themselves valuable in two ways now and in the future: Have in-demand hard skills, such as with computers, that are transferable to more than one task; and have soft skills such as communication, problem-solving and conflict resolution.

"That balance will be critical," Auterson said.

All of this could take two decades, give or take, to shake out, Auterson said. But he's optimistic that American ingenuity can again win against adversity.

Strategy No. 2: Focus on industry clusters with potential

One of the main industries the York County Economic Alliance has focused on is the medical device manufacturing sector, and it continues to do so by attending domestic and international trade shows to promote the area to companies potentially looking to move, Auterson said.

New Jersey-based The Boyd Co. Inc. issued a report a few years ago that put the greater York community high on a list of places across the country where medical device manufacturers could most cost-effectively do business. York took the top spot for the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions.

York County has a skilled workforce that would be attractive for an incoming medical device manufacturer, and it has existing firms such as Dentsply International Inc. and Unilife Corp. The county also is close to major markets for such devices, Auterson said.

One thing officials are working on to help this industry is advocating to eliminate the excise tax that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act places on such devices, Auterson said.

Strategy No. 3: Put effort, information into matchmaking

The South Central Workforce Investment Board has developed an industry survey to reach out to businesses to learn the need trends within its coverage area, said Terri Kaufman, executive director of the Dauphin County-based organization covering Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Juniata, Lebanon, Perry and York counties.

It's been working with the York County Economic Alliance, Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC,other chambers, and economic development corporations and educational partners in the counties it serves.

Surveys for Franklin and Lebanon counties are completed, York County's is finishing up and one is circulating in the counties in the capital region, she said.

The survey examines hiring patterns, employer needs and what skill sets and educational attainment employers are looking for, Kaufman said.

The board hopes to wrap up the process by mid-fall, then wants to repeat the process every two to three years as an ongoing way for workforce training to be developed more quickly to match current demand, she said.

Its job is to be a bridge between people who need a job or better employment and the people who need specifically skilled workers, Kaufman said.

One program showing strong promise is one in which the board matches a potential employee with an eligible employer and then offers to subsidize on-the-job training if the skills aren't completely what an eligible employer needs, Kaufman said.

Strategy No. 4: Embrace the new and clear hurdles

Strictly looking at manufacturing numbers shows Cumberland County as a pretty hard-hit area of the midstate, but its overall unemployment rate has stayed relatively low.

The area has benefited from its diversity of sectors, from health care and technology to warehousing and distribution, and the large federal workforce due to military facilities, said Jonathan Bowser, director of economic development for the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp.

Hospitals and health systems are expanding, and just recently Procter & Gamble announced a Shippensburg-area facility that will eventually employ about 1,000 people, Bowser said.

The county also has several colleges that feed the workforce with professionals for other sectors.

Wages have stayed up as manufacturing dipped and warehousing continues to move in. What used to take about 2,000 workers, for example, to do in a warehouse now is accomplished with about 1,000 people who are skilled on equipment and therefore can get a higher wage, Bowser said.

One thing that could help, Bowser said, is to simplify the approvals processes for a company that might want to build a large distribution center. A property can span multiple jurisdictions from which it would need approvals, and that's even if the land is zoned for the intended use in the first place, he said.

A dialogue on how to help improve the process would be helpful, Bowser said. It is also important going forward to do what we can to enhance the area's military bases.

Strategy No. 5: Develop faster-turnaround skills training

In Lancaster County, an initiative called Occupational Skill Training provides shorter training courses for specific skills, said Scott Sheely, executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board.

Training can last from a day to eight weeks and cover everything from how to drive a forklift and fix machinery to learning Microsoft Office and the basics of printing and welding, he said.

"'I don't need someone with a bachelor's degree,'" Sheely said he's been told. "'I need someone who has held a welding torch in their hand.'" And people have been hired right out of the training, he said.

In addition, Lancaster County is seeing a significant share of its job growth in temp workers, Sheely said.

That means its manufacturing employment technically isn't as low as it might seem in official numbers, because many temp workers are in the sector even though it's not the traditional, family-sustaining manufacturing job, he said.

And the on-the-job training subsidy can't be used to help train a temp worker, Sheely said. So it becomes a tool that isn't working as well as it once did.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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