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Labor deficit hits home in factories, warehouses

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When Procter & Gamble opens the doors on its 1.7-million-square-foot distribution center near Shippensburg in September, it hopes to have workers ready to fill it. A total of 963 workers, to be precise.

The new facility will ship manufactured goods to retailers throughout the Northeast. That means a lot of jobs in shipping and receiving.

Where the workers will come from is yet to be determined. A Procter & Gamble spokesman has said it will use temporary labor at the 183-acre site, which is being developed at a cost of more than $93 million.

That trend is hardly surprising. The latest ranking of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry's top-50 employers in Cumberland County as of second quarter 2013 features five employment agencies, with Berks and Beyond Employment Services coming in highest at No. 16.

"We continue to invest heavily in Cumberland County and are opening our third local office this April to support our growth," said Chris Garner, president of BBES. "Based on our employee numbers in the early part of 2014, I anticipate that we will be ranked much higher on next year's list."

Cumberland County has an unemployment rate just under 5 percent, said Jonathan Bowser, executive director at Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp. While it's a good thing to have close to full employment, he said, it makes it difficult for companies to find labor.

More jobs on the horizon

Bowser's office has monitored not only the Procter & Gamble project but the Goodman Birtcher plan to build about 2 million square feet of warehouses along Allen Road on the Dickinson Township border with Carlisle. In addition, BPG Properties has a plan to turn farmland off Interstate 81 in Shippensburg Township into two warehouses and 500 jobs.

And, in a project that hasn't been made public yet, Bowser said, another company is looking to build a warehouse in West Pennsboro Township.

"You add up all these sites and all this square footage and whether it's going to be manufacturing and warehousing or both, you do start to wonder where's all the workforce going to come from?" he said.

The onslaught of warehousing and manufacturing has sent area economic development agencies scrambling for workforce development programs.

York-based Manufacturers' Association is leading an effort to develop a workforce through a pilot program that kicked off in March. The program is putting 80 potential workers, mostly younger, through 80 hours of classroom training, said Michael Smeltzer, executive director of the association.

Employers are at the ready to hire the "graduates," he added. Those who complete the program will receive a nationally recognized "skills standard credential" for logistics work, Smeltzer said, plus a forklift license.

Classes are being held in Franklin County to start but, if it's successful, Smeltzer said, the association wants to repeat the effort in counties across the region.

"We can see two to three years, certainly into the future, that there is going to be a multitude of opportunities for those who have these credentials," he said. "It's too early for me to sit here and say it's going to work, but it makes sense to me."

Wages could rise

The association's strategy is to get the basic logistics positions filled and offer those workers the opportunity to move into more skilled manufacturing positions, Smeltzer explained.

Initial classes are being paid for by the SouthCentral Workforce Investment Board.

"As we go forward, we've got some work to do as far as the financial aspect of this," Smeltzer said. "But if it works, I don't think we're going to have too big of a challenge with that issue."

The graying of the workforce is another issue contributing to a labor shortage, said Mike Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp.

"We're also going to have to backfill many of the jobs that are going to be vacated over the next few years," he said. "It's a problem everywhere."

Whereas the logistics sector at least has a broad field from which to find workers, Ross pointed out, the positions for skilled manufacturing employees — such as welders, for example — are often much harder to fill.

The labor shortage is likely to push wages northward, he added.

"Businesses will pay what they have to pay in order to get the talent they need and in order to retain it," Ross said.

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