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Fresh eyes take look at Pennsylvania's aging workforce

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Since early this year, members of Gov. Tom Wolf's cabinet have been taking a fresh look at Pennsylvania's widening skills gap, traveling around the commonwealth to get the perspective of business leaders and educators during highly publicized “Jobs That Pay” and “Schools That Teach” tours.

According to the Department of Labor and Industry, a quarter of Pennsylvania's workforce — more than 1.3 million people — is now over the age of 55. And with most of these folks likely to retire in the not-too-distant future, the state could be facing a serious worker shortage, particularly in industries where fewer young people are rising through the ranks to take their places.

Of primary concern is the manufacturing sector, as the cabinet's been told frequently during its roaming roundtable sessions. Not enough college, high school and even middle school kids are studying the areas of expertise that manufacturers will need to remain competitive, and it could mean serious consequences for the state's economy down the road.

The good news is the Wolf administration thinks it has a pretty good handle on how to remedy the situation. But it's going to take an unprecedented level of cooperation between several departments to make it happen, cabinet members say.

Tech skills required

“In the old days, manufacturing was much more labor-intensive, and you didn't have to be book-smart to get a job,” Labor and Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino said. But today, she explained, manufacturers desperately need workers with technology and computer skills.

What they're saying

Here's what other people have been saying in the CPBJ about the skills gap, STEM education and the manufacturing industry:

In a July 10 article about a midstate school creating career pathways, Kazim Dharsi, chairman of the engineering and technology department at Harrisburg Area Community College, said: "We work very closely with industry and respond well to what their leaders want us to do, and what they want is more training in the STEM fields."

Charlie DeBello, director of operations for Everlast Roofing Inc. in South Lebanon Township, said in a March 19 article about workforce trends: "We're hiring. We're always hiring. But we can't find the skilled people to fill the positions."

Ross Berger, College & Career Academy coordinator at Harrisburg School District, said in a March 9 article about STEM skills addressing worker shortages: "Career development education starts in elementary school. We need to create a spark and help students discover their deepest passions that give them meaning and joy. We need to link their personal interests with the tools and resources they need to reach their goals."

Regarding how educators are addressing the skills gap, William Griscom, president of the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, said in an Aug. 22, 2014, article: "The one sustainable competitive advantage the American manufacturing industry has always had is the productivity and creativity of their workforce. But right now, our companies ... don't have a full team, let alone the best team.

“There's a lot of opportunity for young people now that manufacturing requires so much more tech savvy,” Manderino said. “Unfortunately, we've created a jobs gap because we spent decades telling kids that the only path to a good-paying career was a traditional four-year degree that would get them into other fields. So now I'm trying to use the bully pulpit of my department to change that and tell students how exciting and well-paying manufacturing has become, and that there are other education options.”

She pointed out that the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, for example, does a “tremendous” job of preparing young people for manufacturing careers. Most of the school's graduates get three to five job offers with starting salaries around $50,000, she said.

Connecting Pennsylvania's educators with job creators, and making sure they understand each other's needs, will also be crucial to fixing the gap, Manderino said.

"We're now striving at the Cabinet level to understand what each department is doing with this issue," she said.

STEM jobs of the future

“If someone who worked on an assembly line 20 years ago looked at one now, they'd think you need an engineering degree to work on it,” Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera said. “It's a very different skill set.”

And because high-tech jobs evolve every day, Rivera stressed, it's imperative that educators train young people to be lifelong learners.

“It's not just about preparing kids today and then sending them out into the world,” he said. “In fact, we're training kids now for jobs that don't even exist yet.”

One of the keys will be the growing focus on STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — in Pennsylvania's schools, Rivera explained.

"If we’re going to meet our career needs in the future, we have to be sure we have quality technical education programs in every community, from pre-K all the way up to adults."

“If we're going to meet our career needs in the future, we have to be sure we have quality technical education programs in every community, from pre-K all the way up to adults,” he said. “Another thing we're learning is that STEM can't be a standalone program anymore. It has to be integrated into everything we do in schools because virtually everything in our lives has some aspect of technology and engineering about it.”

The secretary said that, like Manderino, he's in “constant conversation” with other departments about training future workers.

“By our nature, the Department of Education is connected to almost every department, so we're talking about where we go from here,” Rivera said.

Funding programs, attracting companies

“We talk about this issue on a daily basis,” Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis M. Davin said.

“Right now, 82 percent of Pennsylvania's manufacturers say they have a serious skills gap,” he said. “They say we need to train new employees to do these jobs — which is a great opportunity for younger people — but it's going to take a lot of funding.”

Some of that funding could come from the $10 million Wolf has proposed in the 2015-16 budget for the state's Industry Partnerships program, which helps clusters of businesses identify common workforce needs and develop training programs, Davin said.

Another piece of the puzzle from an economic development standpoint, Davin said, is that many young people get out of college and move to cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh “because they're exciting places to be.”

“They have restaurants, cultural activities and sports,” he said. “But industries in some third-class cities are having a hard time attracting people to their areas, so we have to look at ways to change that, too.”

Part of the solution also lies with the Governor's Action Team, a section of Davin's department that deals with companies considering a move to Pennsylvania.

“Many of them have the ability to locate and grow anywhere in the world,” he said. “So part of what we have to do is convince them that Pennsylvania is a great place to do business. And ultimately, that will do our workforce a lot of good as well.”

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Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline covers York County, nonprofits, workforce and education. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at larryp@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @CPBJLarryP. Circle Larry Portzline on .

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