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Lancaster: In rising economy, companies grapple with hiring

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Tom Baldrige is president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which moved into a new headquarters in downtown Lancaster in April.
Tom Baldrige is president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which moved into a new headquarters in downtown Lancaster in April. - (Photo / )

One of the downsides of a growing economy is that qualified employees are in short supply.

Lancaster County had an unemployment rate of 4 percent as of May, lower than all but two other Pennsylvania counties. The Lancaster region also outranks the rest of the state in terms of percentage increase in private jobs over the past 10 years, according to the state Department of Labor & Industry.

That’s good news for job seekers but bad news for employers.

“By far the issue I hear about most, practically on a daily basis, is workforce. Companies are almost all scrambling,” said Tom Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

The problem is far from unique to Lancaster County. Throughout the U.S., businesses across a number of sectors have seen demand for services grow faster than they can hire people to perform the work. The national unemployment rate as of June stood at 4.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, close to if not below the rate some economists consider “full employment” — the point at which most people who want a job can find one with relative ease.

While labor shortages have been reported across many industries, the problem has been especially acute in skilled-trade industries like construction and welding.

In Lancaster, businesses have looked both inward to their own training programs and outward to the education and public sectors to find ways to fill the hiring gaps.

Top private companies in Lancaster County
Ranked by total revenue

  1. High Companies
  2. Chartwell Staffing Solutions Inc.
  3. Wohlsen Construction Co.
  4. Dutch Gold Honey Inc.
  5. Benchmark Construction Co. Inc.
  6. Charter Homes Building Co. DBA Charter Homes & Neighborhoods
  7. Lawn Equipment Parts Co. DBA LEPCO
  8. SKH Management Co.
  9. Homesale Realty Services Group Inc.
  10. M.H. Eby Inc.

Groups like the Lancaster Chamber and Lancaster County Workforce Development Board have ramped up efforts recently to raise awareness about the hurdles companies are facing when it comes to finding skilled workers, Baldrige said. Community organizations like the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty have taken steps to connect the county’s unemployed and underemployed — of which Lancaster still has plenty — with job-training programs, while also looking for solutions to potential employees’ transportation and childcare issues.

Internally, some businesses have increased their own training efforts to help employees rise through the ranks. Others are investing in educational institutions to help train the next generation of workers, especially in skilled trade and STEM-related programs.

High Steel Structures is among the companies changing its approach to hiring and recruitment.

The affiliate of Lancaster County-based High Industries Inc. specializes in massive steel projects, most notably bridges. That means it needs lots of welders, a labor pool that industry groups and the U.S. Department of Labor say is shrinking as older tradespeople retire and too few young people take their place.

High hires about 25 welders per year on average but sees occasional spikes in demand when larger projects emerge, said Kathy Prime, chief learning and talent development officer for High Companies, and Ronnie Medlock, High Steel’s vice president of technical services. The bulk of these hires live in Lancaster County or have ties to the area.

Although Prime and Medlock do not necessarily believe the welder shortage is directly tied to a post-recession labor shortage, they do believe ample opportunity exists to educate Lancastrians about welding careers.

“Sometimes there’s not a strong knowledge in kids coming out of high school that welding is a good job,” Medlock said.

To that end, High has partnered in recent years with the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and school district-sponsored career and technology centers to help schools make sure their teachings line up with the skills needed in the real world.

The company has also reinvested in its existing workforce. Instead of informal on-the-job training, High adopted a structured skills-training procedure about a year and a half ago that combines elements of teaching, testing and mentorship.

High does from time to time bring on people from outside the county. Medlock, for example, is a transplant from Texas. When the company finds people from elsewhere that it wants to bring on, Prime said, convincing to move to the area typically presents few issues.

“Lancaster County has been an easy sell,” she said.<

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Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at jwentz@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @jenni_wentz.

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